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Late last month, almost four years to the day after his company, Nullsoft, was acquired by America Online, star programmer Justin Frankel quietly posted the code to a program called Waste on Nullsoft’s Web site. It seemed innocuous enough: a program for setting up small, encrypted networks. But within hours, higher ups at AOL pulled the code from the site and replaced it with a terse notice, scripted in legalese, that warned anyone who downloaded the program that they had “no lawful rights” to the software and that “any and all” copies of it must be destroyed.

It wasn’t the first time this happened. In 2000, during the height of the Napster craze, Frankel posted the program to Gnutella on Nullsoft.com, only to find the code yanked a few hours later. Those few hours were enough for the code-a decentralized peer-to-peer (P2P) program-to be downloaded by enough key people to turn Gnutella into a major force in the P2P world. Today, Gnutella-based programs have been downloaded more than 35 million times.

Does the same future await Waste? Perhaps. The program has already been downloaded more than 1,600 times, according to several people who put up “mirror sites” featuring the code. Though 1,600 downloads might not sound impressive compared to the Gnutella’s 35 million, it shows strong interest in the program-especially since it was only available on the official site for a couple of hours. Despite AOL’s warning, more than 20 mirror sites are still running. AOL apparently has thus far chosen not to crack down too strongly on the mirrors, though it’s difficult to say how long that will last. A Yahoo! discussion group about Waste has already formed. But before analyzing Waste’s future, it’s important to understand what is it-and isn’t-today.

Whenever Frankel releases code, legitimately or not, it’s news. He’s a programmer of remarkable pedigree, having created WinAmp (the most popular MP3 software player) and Shoutcast (streaming radio), as well as Gnutella. But perhaps hoping to stoke another Gnutella-sized frenzy, the first news stories erroneously pegged Waste as a file-trading application. File-trading is certainly a component of Waste, but it doesn’t appear to be its primary function.

Since the code is in a “1.0 beta” stage, it’s hard to tell exactly what it wants to be; Frankel didn’t respond to repeated requests for information and AOL had no comment on Waste. But after spending some time with Waste and speaking with coders who are already at work improving it, a clearer picture emerges. “Given the amount of effort Justin put in, which clearly wasn’t huge, it’s off to a great start,” says Ray Ozzie, CEO of Groove Networks and creator of Lotus Notes, who has played around with the software.

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