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Hotline Reinvents the BBS
by Leander Kahney

8:52 a.m.  1.Oct.98.PDT
A new PC version of an obscure Mac program, one that turns any networked computer into an Internet server and downloads files and data at unprecedented speeds, is reviving the pre-Web concept of the bulletin-board system.

Hotline delivers news, live chat, and a speedy file-transfer system that promises to lessen download times between 30 and 40 percent.

While the program's Windows version is still in testing, the new port already accounts for between 60 and 70 percent of the downloads from the company's Web site.

"The idea of turning every connected workstation into a ubiquitous member of a distributed data warehouse is not new, but though it has been described in books of fiction, it has never been done on [this] scale," said Paul Vixie, chairman of the Internet Software Consortium and the creator of BIND, one of the protocols underlying today's Internet.

The product is generating considerable buzz, and spawning a rash of communities trading in material as diverse as porn, Christian Youth literature, MP3 music files, games, wrestling info, and investor tips.

"It's all word of mouth," said Jason Roks, Hotline's vice president of business development. "We haven't done any advertising. When the [final] Windows version is released, it'll really blow the roof off."

Hotline turns any Interent-connected PC into a server, which can be online around the clock or part time. Users identify a live server by clicking a host's name or number. The software connects to the machine's Internet protocol (IP) address via a local Internet service provider.

Servers drop on and off the Net constantly, so Hotline Communications, the software's developer, monitors the active machines with tracking servers, or "trackers," each of which follows 100 to 400 servers.

Busy trackers can monitor between 400 and 600 servers, and log up to 100,000 users a day, the company said. The majority of trackers are private, but public trackers are run by a variety of people -- some private, some public, and some "underground".

Hotline Software runs a public tracker with "legit" servers, but most of the other public trackers are run by schools, or individuals at schools, ISPs, magazines, and Mac sites such as Mac Addict and Mac OS Rumors).

One tracker site, Troutmask, lists 57 trackers operating out of 32 IP addresses; another is at Hotline Tracker-Tracker, and lists 29 trackers at 20 IP addresses.

Roks said that his company's software can download multimedia files 30 to 40 percent faster than using FTP, and a big download can be interrupted and resumed where the user left off.

Hotline is well-suited for the distribution of music and software. It has fewer drawbacks than existing distribution options, including File Transfer Protocol, Internet Relay Chat, Usenet, and the Web. The TCP/IP-based system demands no networking knowledge, and the number of packets sent can be dynamically adjusted to fill the available bandwidth at any given time.

That's a downloaders dream -- and the system has spawned a cult following among software pirates, pornographers, and members of the hacker underground.

Users can find the latest software, games, music, movies, porn, hacks, and cracks. The latest John Woo movie can be downloaded in its entirety, as can clips, drawings, and other "secret" materials from the forthcoming Star Wars movie. The Beastie Boys' new album was available 10 days before its official release.

Chris Alan, president of ElectriCiti Inc., a San Diego-based ISP that has run a BBS system called Dynamo for the past six years, said that Hotline is easier to set up than most FTP server software on the Mac or PC, "but many people would want to move on pretty quickly to something a bit more sophisticated."

"I'm sure it will continue to grow in popularity; it does a few things well -- chat board, messaging, and file upload and download," Alan said. "But right now it's a pretty simplistic utility. The barrier to entry has been lowered a bit by this product, but I don't think it's revolutionary."

The concept of one-person operations built on file downloads, evokes the age of the bulletin-board systems of old -- private dial-up communities that predated the Web and are still used by porn traders and nonprofits.

One 19-year-old pre-med student at an East-coast university, who identifies himself only as "Prospero," runs Caliban's Dungeon -- a Hotline server specializing in utilities and games.

Prospero's server sits on his dorm's T1 line, and in an 18-hour period last week, he logged 1,000 connections and 137 downloads. Downloading requires a password, which users learn through a single click-through banner on his Web page. He makes 10 cents a click, or about $10 a day.

"I do it mostly for the prestige and to have a community thing going on," he said. "It's prestigious, to have people on and say youšve got a kick-ass server. The money is pocket change, money on the side."

Because many Hotline networks are private, the company can only guess how many users there are. Hotline has logged more than two million downloads from its Web site and distributed about 1 million installers on demo CDs, said Roks.

The company acknowledges the software piracy problem and has set up a server, called Room 22, to provide publishers with legal information, case studies, and forms. The service will go live in the next couple of weeks.

"Our responsibility as a company is to educate people, not enforce copyright laws," Roks said. "We don't want to be the police of the Internet."


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