A Subversive Programmer Tweaks AOL

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.
  • Transcript


Question: How did it feel when AOL bought your company?

Justin Frankel:  It was, it was awesome.  They were really actually really nice and very... when they came to us they were very straightforward and really like, gave me a lot of confidence in their sincerity and their willingness to go and do good things.  So, it was... I was very excited by it.  And then obviously it was life-changing in terms of what kind of freedom it would give me going forward financially and otherwise. But yeah, it was a very good thing.  You know.  Once we got there and you saw some of the internal politics, it was a different story.  But, yeah.

Why did you release gnutella?

Justin Frankel: Gnutella was software that allowed people who ran it on their computers to connect to other people who run the software. And once you’re connected, you would be connected to sort of—what’s the best expression—you’d be connected to the people around you who are then connected to other people and so you would have a horizon of people who you could... well I’m trying to remember what the feature said originally it was. But, you could talk to them and you could search whatever files they would make available and transfer files with them.  And what was unique about this was it was a system that allowed people to connect directly with each other and as a result, find other people and find data that way without having any company or central server in the middle of it.  So there would be no... no one to control it, it would just be a sort of free way to connect to people.

Yeah, and Napster was very successful at that point and they had apparent, they had a great deal of computer hardware just dedicated to letting everyone connect to them and it was a big expensive operation for them to do.  So this was a very simple, a little bit like... when I was designing it, it was very much in my mind that it wasn’t going to function perfectly.  Like, you would never be able to talk to everyone else on these networks, it would always be like, you could talk to the people nearest you.  But it was something you could do and it was exciting because it was software that created something much larger out of little bits of software and didn't require actually any physical hardware, or any service to set up.  It was just software that connected people.

Question: What was AOL’s problem with gnutella?

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

Do you regret what you did?

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

Recorded on June 21, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman