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Juno aims to resell subscribers' 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, the company announced Friday.

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, Juno said. The company has 14.2 million registered users, of which about four 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 said 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 denied 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 analyze 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 expect sales of supercomputers to explode over the next decade, as research companies search for medical applications of the genome sequence.

Juno's most recent privacy statement incorporating the rules for the distributed computing program say customers may be required to leave their computer on at all times, an electricity expense which could prove to be a stumbling block to widespread adoption ... particularly in energy-strapped states like California.

The statement also authorizes Juno to force the computer of a customer who infrequently uses Juno's service to dial into Juno's central computers on its own, in order to deposit the processed data, which some users may object to on privacy grounds.

Juno, in New York, is at www.juno.com.

The IDG News Service is a Network World affiliate.

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