Did AOL eat Gnutella for lunch?

Nullsoft's engineers released a Napster clone without America Online's permission. The media got a peek and then the site was gone.

Topics: AOL,

“Those naughty, naughty geeks. You give them $70 million and what do they do, but stab you right in the back?”

I’m indulging in a bit of conjecture, but I can only imagine that conversations in the executive suites of America Online went somewhat along those lines this week, after the discovery that programmers working at AOL subsidiary Nullsoft had been engaging in some semi-naughty (and very secret) software development. How else to explain the fact that Nullsoft’s little project, Gnutella, an open-source clone of the controversial file-swapping software Napster, was effaced from the Web merely hours after it surfaced?

You may recall that Nullsoft, a geeky and talented group of programmers from Arizona who conceived both the Winamp MP3 player and Shoutcast, was purchased last summer by AOL. Justin Frankel, the wunderkind founder of Nullsoft and reticent icon of the geek world, is now estimated by the Wall Street Journal to be worth $70 million. Since the company disappeared behind the iron curtain of AOL, however, the world has heard not a peep about Frankel and company’s current projects.

The mystery appeared solved Tuesday, however, when the quiet alpha release of Gnutella on a back page of the Nullsoft Web site turned into a full-fledged media storm. Gnutella is apparently a type of file-sharing software, inspired by Napster, which allows users to exchange everything from MP3 files to digital movies to “recipes” (as product manager Tom Pepper speculated in the Wall Street Journal). Apparently, the software was intended to resolve some of the bandwidth-hogging issues that have spurred many universities to ban Napster; much to the delight of the geeks at Slashdot, it’s also an open-source application.

It seems that AOL had no idea that the Nullsoft programmers were working on such a project; according to the Journal, “Gnutella had been a secret until this week.” And no surprise: Napster is currently being sued for billions of dollars by the Recording Industry Association of America, which complains that the software enables music piracy. AOL — which is in the process of acquiring Time Warner, which in turn owns the record label Warner Music, which in turn is a charter member of the Recording Industry Association of America — could hardly be pleased that one of its own was producing a similar software program. No wonder those roguish programmers kept Gnutella hidden from their corporate managers.

The Gnutella software and documentation mysteriously disappeared from Nullsoft’s Web site on Tuesday; Pepper told News.com that the program was removed because the beta program was full (Slashdot fans had apparently deluged the site) and the software wasn’t ready for public consumption. AOL officials are hinting of a different story: “The gnutella software was an unauthorized freelance project and the Web site that allowed access to the software was taken down yesterday,” Josh Felser, general manager for Winamp, said in a statement Wednesday.

Although Nullsoft engineers weren’t available for comment, the statements hint of curious behind-the-scenes shenanigans at AOL. Was the release of Gnutella a pie-in-the-face prank intended to show the world that Nullsoft, despite being acquired by the most corporate of corporations, hadn’t lost its geek credibility? Will Gnutella ever be released as an AOL-endorsed product? Or will AOL choke its wayward programmers into submission?

Too late: The open-source application is already being widely passed around by diligent free-software fans; even if Gnutella never sees the light of day as an AOL-branded program, the sticky software will surely keep circulating (already, Gnutella and its documentation have mysteriously reappeared on a landscaping Web site).

Was this Frankel’s intention in the first place? No one knows, but it’s certainly true that with millions already safe in their pockets, the Nullsoft programmers can afford to give this one away for free.

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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