LimeWire adds social features
Lime Wire LLC announced a new version of the popular LimeWire file-sharing software today, advancing the company's vision of its software as a platform for services, not just a gateway to the Gnutella network. Clearly, the major record companies' lawsuit hasn't stopped the company from trying to develop its business -- or pushing p2p to higher levels of functionality.
One of the main upgrades in the new version -- due later this year -- is the addition of social-networking features. Users will be able to create their own private file-sharing networks with friends and/or family members, with greater control over what gets shared with whom. In a recent interview, Kevin J. Bradshaw, Lime's chief operating officer, described it as the ability to create a "personal publishing platform" that delivers photos to family members or homework assignments to students. Members can push items to each other through these networks and can watch what others in the group are sharing and experiencing, said Nathan Lovejoy, Lime's product manager. Those features should help make LimeWire, which has been mainly a tool for "directed search" (i.e., looking for and finding specific things), a more effective way to discover new content, Bradshaw said.
The company is walking a tightrope as it tries to build a business around users whose actions it professes not to observe or control.
According to p2p monitoring companies, most of what's being shared today on LimeWire is pirated songs, movies, TV shows and software. Enabling people to create private sharing groups might encourage more of them to use the software for legitimate sharing of the media they create, but it might also be seen as a way to promote anxiety-free bootlegging by those concerned about Recording Industry Assn. of America lawsuits and malware. Copyright law and the Supreme Court's Grokster ruling provide limited room for file-sharing companies to maneuver -- if they knowingly promote or abet piracy by their users, or profit from infringement they could have stopped, they can be held liable for it. (The Grokster ruling didn't define what constitutes promoting infringement; that's what the RIAA is trying to do as part of its lawsuit against Lime. Among other things, the labels argue that the volume of piracy by LimeWire users and the lack of mandatory filters demonstrate that Lime is promoting infringement.) So the company can't add many of the features found on licensed content sites and services, such as Hulu or Rhapsody -- for example, it can't look at what a user has in his or her shared folder and recommend other things to download. Pushing content or advertising to users based on what they're downloading would be problematic too. Instead, the new version of LimeWire seeks to let users guide one another to content. It's less efficient than a good recommendation engine, but that's the box Lime is in.
On the other hand, LimeWire's enormous audience is enough to prod some content owners to look past the infringements and focus on the opportunities. The company claims the software is downloaded 350,000 times daily, with more than 70 million users per month and 5 million at any given moment. Its 8-month-old music store -- an appendage to the LimeWire software, not a node on the network -- has the support of two major indie-music aggregators (IODA and The Orchard) and a Viacom subsidiary (Comedy Central, but just for music sales). Eventually, Lovejoy said, the company will try "to drive the right people to the right files" at the store, but today it's focused mainly on just making the store work. Lime is also exploring ways to monetize search by putting sponsored items into users' search results, although Brand Asset Digital beat it to the punch on that score.
Still, Lime may be racing the clock here. Online traffic counters say downloading is giving way to streaming as the consumption model of choice. Hulu is just one of a growing roster of sophisticated, free outlets for video on demand that are building large audiences among college students and other young users who used to rely on p2p for their TV shows. There's also the threat that the RIAA lawsuit will force the company to insert filtering technology into its software, as was the case with Napster, Kazaa, Groster, Morpheus and every other file-sharing program targeted by the entertainment industry. Nevertheless, its enormous audience gives LimeWire considerable momentum. It's the tool millions of people use to acquire content, and the new version could attract even more.
-- Jon Healey