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AOL Instant Messenger gets Napsterized

A new Napster-like program springs up online that piggybacks on the popular instant messaging service, limiting swaps of music and other files to close, trusted groups of people.

A new Napster-like program has sprung up online that piggybacks on America Online's popular instant messaging service, limiting swaps of music and other files to close, trusted groups of people.

Launched yesterday, the Aimster software draws on AOL Instant Messenger's (AIM) buddy lists to create a group of people authorized to swap files with each other. The software then uses Gnutella's open-source technology to make connections between people on the buddy lists.

The developers say they are hoping to create a file-sharing system without the uncertainty involved in opening personal computer hard drives to random strangers online.

"We're trying to answer the criticisms of file-sharing programs that a number of people have made--that if you're sharing files from your computer, you want it to be personal, not with a million strangers," said John Deep, a spokesman for the group of programmers that created the software.

In the process, the developers have selected one of the most popular pieces of software online to target a pool of people. AIM has more than 61 million registered users, according to AOL.

But trying to make the software work with AIM has its risks. AOL has consistently blocked other companies from piggybacking on its work, publishing protocols for the software but refusing to allow other message programs to connect with AIM users.

"We will continue to protect the privacy and security of our members and other AIM users," AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said. "We do not authorize attempts to use our system or our software without our permission."

The file-sharing world has exploded since Napster first hit the scene last year, with millions of people engaged in trading MP3 music files, movies or other documents over programs such as Napster, Gnutella or Scour.net.

A large number of people also reportedly trade files using features in instant messaging programs such as AIM and AOL's ICQ, but no numbers are available on this practice. As no search feature is available for these programs, they limit the scale of use for trading music.

The huge surge in file-swapping popularity has rocked the music industry, which filed suit against Napster and Scour.net for contributing to massive online piracy. Last month, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against Napster that would have forced it to close its doors, but an appeals court has temporarily put that order on hold.

The Aimster developers, a company of 15 people based in Troy, N.Y., are Napster special report hoping to take off where Napster leaves off--if, in fact, the beleaguered Silicon Valley firm is forced to shut down.

The software works by putting a "skin," or different graphical interface, over AOL's instant messaging service. It then reads the Internet address of each person in the buddy list as they come online, making their computers a part of the Aimster search universe.

When a person conducts a search on Aimster, the query goes to each person on the buddy list who is running the Aimster software and looks at each person's hard drive. Searches also go out to the larger Gnutella network through a connection provided by Aimster servers, but people from Gnutella can't search computers running Aimster.

To download a file from another computer, that computer must have the person requesting a file on its buddy list. That protects people from random searches of their hard drives, the company says.

Aimster's Deep said the company doesn't interfere with AOL's servers or use the company's software to send its own messages, and so it probably can't be blocked. Companies such as Microsoft, Excite@Home and iCast have tried to make their own message software interact with AIM but have been blocked by AOL.

To date, AOL has taken no action against Aimster.

The first version of the software isn't designed for corporate use and won't work well behind firewalls, Deep said. Another release of the software that can tunnel through firewalls will be released at the end of this month.