A Subversive Programmer Tweaks AOL

Question: How did it feel when AOL bought your company?
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\r\nJustin Frankel:  It was, it was awesome.  They were really \r\nactually really nice and very... when they came to us they were very \r\nstraightforward and really like, gave me a lot of confidence in their \r\nsincerity and their willingness to go and do good things.  So, it was...\r\n I was very excited by it.  And then obviously it was life-changing in \r\nterms of what kind of freedom it would give me going forward financially\r\n and otherwise. But yeah, it was a very good thing.  You know.  Once we \r\ngot there and you saw some of the internal politics, it was a different \r\nstory.  But, yeah.
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\r\nQuestion:
Why did you release gnutella?
\r\n

\r\nJustin Frankel: Gnutella was software that allowed people who ran\r\n it on their computers to connect to other people who run the software. \r\nAnd once you’re connected, you would be connected to sort of—what’s the \r\nbest expression—you’d be connected to the people around you who are then\r\n connected to other people and so you would have a horizon of people who\r\n you could... well I’m trying to remember what the feature said \r\noriginally it was. But, you could talk to them and you could search \r\nwhatever files they would make available and transfer files with them.  \r\nAnd what was unique about this was it was a system that allowed people \r\nto connect directly with each other and as a result, find other people \r\nand find data that way without having any company or central server in \r\nthe middle of it.  So there would be no... no one to control it, it \r\nwould just be a sort of free way to connect to people.
\r\n
\r\nYeah, and Napster was very successful at that point and they had \r\napparent, they had a great deal of computer hardware just dedicated to \r\nletting everyone connect to them and it was a big expensive operation \r\nfor them to do.  So this was a very simple, a little bit like... when I \r\nwas designing it, it was very much in my mind that it wasn’t going to \r\nfunction perfectly.  Like, you would never be able to talk to everyone \r\nelse on these networks, it would always be like, you could talk to the \r\npeople nearest you.  But it was something you could do and it was \r\nexciting because it was software that created something much larger out \r\nof little bits of software and didn't require actually any physical \r\nhardware, or any service to set up.  It was just software that connected\r\n people.
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\r\nQuestion: What was AOL’s problem with gnutella?
\r\n

\r\nJustin Frankel: Well, I think the biggest the problem they had is\r\n we didn’t really ask them about it.  It was more... and it’s just as \r\nwell we didn’t, I’m sure if we had they would have said, "That’s a bad \r\nidea. We really should look at this." And you know, to their credit, \r\nthey’re probably right.  A big corporation like them, that’s not what \r\nyou need to be doing.  You’re job is more how do you monetize people \r\nrather than how do you enable people to do things they want to do.
\r\n
\r\nQuestion:
Do you regret what you did?
\r\n

\r\nJustin Frankel: No, I think, I think I probably wouldn’t do it \r\nagain in the same way, but you know, I think what ended up happening was\r\n fine and I think it was only good for pretty much everyone involved.  \r\nIt didn’t look good for AOL, but did it end up hurting them?  It did not\r\n move the needle at all.  I think they announced the TimeWarner merger \r\nat that point and so they were doing what they were doing and that was \r\nthat.

Recorded on June 21, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

In creating the gnutella network without asking the Web giant that employed him, Frankel was trying to "enable people to do things they want to do," rather than trying to monetize them.

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