Napster, which creates an online swap meet for finding and trading MP3 audio files, has put enormous pressure on college networks because of the volume of material changing hands through the system.
Numerous schools have blocked the program over bandwidth concerns, sparking protests from students. The company has also been sued by the recording industry for aiding music piracy, a charge the company denies.
Despite the legal challenges, schools have been working with Napster to improve network performance. Technicians at Indiana University and the company say they have developed a way to avoid clogging campus networks, clearing the way for students to reconnect.
"The next two weeks will tell if it's working," said Mark Bruhn, Indiana University's information technology policy officer. "One would not rule out reinstatement of the ban if it doesn't work."
Bruhn said Napster's technology for finding data online could someday be useful for other Internet applications that would more directly benefit faculty and graduate students.
"Napster's application is very clever," he said. "One of the primary reasons we wanted to do more research on this kind of application was because we believe it's going to be much more prevalent in the future, and that it could support other, less recreational university activity."
Other programs have already surfaced that expand on Napster's file-sharing technology. Just this week, a program dubbed "Wrapster" was made available that allows Napster to trade any kind of file, including videos and software programs. Programmers at America Online subsidiary Nullsoft last week created "Gnutella," a Napster knock-off promising enhanced network performance and the ability to exchange any kind of file.
When Napster debuted last summer, it was an instant hit among young people, who suddenly had a powerful way to get almost any music recording for free. But the software's popularity proved to be a major problem for university administrators.
At Indiana University, the program was barely used at the beginning of January, but by the time it was banned Feb. 12, it accounted for more than half of the traffic between the campus and the Internet.
The software changes take advantage of the fact that many colleges are connected to a high-speed, next-generation Internet, frequently referred to as the Internet 2.
Now, when a student wants to download a music file using Napster, the software first searches on the campus system, then on the faster Internet. The public network only will be used as a last resort.
In addition, the university will place software management tools on the network that help organize traffic by order of importance. Music downloads would be a low priority.
"We'll have to analyze what happens in the next two weeks, and if necessary, we'll tweak the priority settings," placing greater restrictions on Napster files, Bruhn said.
The bans were a concern for Napster executives, who noted that young people are the greatest consumers of the software.
"We got a lot of feedback from students following the bans," said Eddie Kessler, vice president of engineering at Napster. "We're hoping other universities that have the Internet 2 backbone will contact us and lift their bans."