Juno to subscribers: Give us your computer cycles

In the latest example of a company seeking to reduce its dependence on online advertising, free ISP Juno Online Services hopes to use the processing power of its customers to form a virtual supercomputer for biomedical research.

          In the latest example of a company seeking to reduce its dependence on online advertising, free ISP (Internet service provider) Juno Online Services hopes to use the processing power of its customers to form a virtual supercomputer for biomedical research, the company announced last week.

          Studies suggest that the computers of all of Juno's active free subscriber base would together represent the world's fastest supercomputer, measured in terms of aggregate instructions per second, if all were simultaneously working on a single computational problem, says Charles Ardai, Juno's president and chief executive officer.

          The programme may lead to trade-offs at which some of the company's non-paying users would balk. Ardai reserves the right to require users of its free service in the future to leave their computers on 24 hours a day, and Juno may install software that would automatically call Juno's central computer to deposit processed data from time to time.

          Ardai says users of Juno's free service have made a conscious trade, submitting to advertising in exchange for free internet access, and downplayed the drawbacks, such as increased electricity bills and the potential for privacy abuse. He likens the potential privacy conflict to initial concerns about the free file-swapping service from Napster. "Napster is far more intrusive ... any random stranger can pull things off your hard drive."

          Reaction on the internet in public chats rooms, for example, has reflected concern that Juno's requirements for the supercomputing initiative could be used for alternative purposes under its privacy policy. One person on the Slashdot.org chat forum for instance proposed the possibility of a company like Microsoft using the programme to hunt for pirated software.

          Ardai says he figures half of Juno's free service customers would be troubled by the additional requirements, but he didn't sound concerned about losing non-paying customers.

          "Free dial-up is currently unprofitable in this space," he says. "Revenue per free subscriber is about $US0.95 per month … and our costs to provide the service is about $US1.38 a month."

          The company has 14.2 million registered users, of which about 4 million actively use Juno's free connection to the internet. Juno aims to sell computer cycles to bioinformatics companies that conduct drug and medical research. The companies would use the cycles to work on computational problems that require a lot of processing power.

          Juno's free users trade advertising space in the form of a banner on their computer screens for their internet connection. Juno has struggled to find profit, as have other free ISPs, and with analysts predicting no growth for online advertising revenue this year, the company says in its most recent earnings release that it would be affected by the market softness. It recently announced job cuts of 4 % of its staff.

          The company also faces legal challenges from rival free ISP NetZero. NetZero alleges in a suit filed in December that Juno's advertising and web navigation window violates a NetZero patent. Juno denies the allegation and charged NetZero is infringing one of its patents.

          Meanwhile, Juno hopes to turn to supercomputing as an alternative source of revenue. The principle is similar to one first employed by a project searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence. The project harnesses the "free cycles" of participating computers, the periods when a computer is inactive, to analyse information collected with the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico as part of Project SERENDIP (The Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations). Each time participants connect to the internet, their computers send the analysis results in, and receive new data to process.

          Juno's plan is to apply this model of distributed computing to the potentially lucrative field of bioinformatics research. Scientists cracked the code for the human genome using supercomputers to automate the testing process. Computer manufacturers like IBM and Compaq Computer expect sales of supercomputers to explode over the next decade, as research companies search for medical applications of the genome sequence.

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