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LimeWire - The Beginning, The Middle, The End
October 27, 2010
Thomas Mennecke
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Over ten long years ago, Napster was the unquestioned P2P mechanism of choice. Under the shadows of Napster there was a little known file-sharing protocol called Gnutella. At the time, Nullsoft’s Justin Frankle, the development team behind WinAmp, created the project in early 2000 with the intention to release it under GNU licensing. A brief announcement appeared on Nullsoft’s homepage and it quickly reached the front page of Slashdot in March of that year. Parent company AOL caught wind of the project and quickly ordered it removed from Nullsoft. The damage was done, however, and thousands of individuals had already downloaded the project. Curious file-sharers reverse engineered the project, and although Nullsoft no longer had any role in the project, Gnutella suddenly became a popular name on July 26, 2000.

The Beginning

The time period of July 26-28, 2000, was a groundbreaking moment for Gnutella. An injunction was ordered against Napster, which forced the network offline for two days (until the injunction was stayed). Just like most other P2P applications, Gnutella was designed to fulfill the same basic need: sharing information. Although Napster was only offline for two days, it highlighted a very critical issue – if the centralized indexing servers were removed, the network collapsed with it. Gnutella revolutionized file-sharing by ushering in the era of decentralization. Unlike Napster, Gnutella was not dependent on centralized servers. Instead, a search query would bounce from user to user until the desired information was found. Even when it found the information requested, the request would keep bouncing around the network.

This caused a nightmare situation on Gnutella that almost led to its demise. Unfortunately, Gnutella was still on version .56 when it experienced a rapid surge of popularity. This caused timeouts, slow file transfers, and instability that nearly derailed the network. Gnutella was afforded some breathing room when Napster came back online. Those who demanded instant access to MP3s returned back to their native Napster. This bought revere engineers plenty of time to work on the protocol and release the first versions post .56 (remember .56 Brokkolo?).

It was this environment that allowed LimeWire to thrive – but it wasn’t the first clone. There were several clones of the .56 release, but the first original clone was a project called Toadnode. It was the first Gnutella client to automatically load peers, which avoided the daunting task of running through Gnutella chat rooms on IRC to find IP gateways to the network. The first versions of LimeWire came about in May of 2000, changing the file-sharing world changed forever.

LimeWire was backed by a wealthy organizer and talented development staff. The duo that headed the LimeWire project, CEO Mark Gorton and developer Greg Bildson, poured a tremendous amount of effort into the project. When Napster finally died in 2001, LimeWire quickly became a popular alternative. It provided a stable platform and consistent development. Additionally, it was open source and multiplatform – prime ingredients for any file-sharing application to thrive. By December 2002, version 2.8 arrived, bringing about the GUESS architecture which substantially improved the performance of LimeWire.

In many ways, LimeWire became a victim of its own success. Gnutella still wasn’t an optimal platform for the millions of Napster refugees, and performance was a consistent problem. The patchwork of dozens of other Gnutella didn’t help either. The inconsistency of development helped forge the Gnutella Development Forum, where leading developers from LimeWire, BearShare, Gnucleus and others would collaborate and organize their efforts.

One of the more groundbreaking developments was the arrival of version 4.0. This brought about “ultrapeers”, similar to the “supernode” technology once used on FastTrack. Instead of treating every peer as an equal carrier of information, those with fast CPUs and solid broadband connections were used to help index content and stabilize the network. This brought about a golden age for LimeWire and the Gnutella community. By June of 2005, LimeWire was the number 1 download on Download.com, and the most popular file-sharing client with millions of users. There’s no definitive way to estimate the Gnutella population, but to say there were at least 4 million users online at any given moment is probably a conservative number. 2005 was LimeWire’s best year, achieving a cultural status as a P2P icon.

Troubles Arrive

The reasons for LimeWire’s fall was both legal and perhaps more importantly, technological. As 2005 wore on and 2006 arrived, the file-sharing landscape had changed dramatically. No longer were individual networks like Gnutella or FastTrack the mainstream avenues of choice. Both networks experienced a serious problem of false and corrupt files plaguing the network. Additionally, the RIAA began suing individual file-sharers, which made these networks unattractive. There was also the powerhouse growth of the P2P protocol, BitTorrent.

By 2006, The Pirate Bay was quickly becoming the most popular BitTorrent tracker/search engine, and BitTorrent was already the most popular file-sharing protocol. It had millions of users, and provided a way for people to comment and rate torrent files. This helped mitigate corrupt and bogus files from infecting home computers. Also, BitTorrent was significantly more advanced than Gnutella, as it was designed for the efficient transmission of large files – such as movies. Sure, Gnutella could share movies as well, but it was always a crapshoot whether the result was something the end user wanted, or not. You just never knew for sure. The only real technological solution to this dilemma was to add BitTorrent support to LimeWire in 2007, which was widely seen as the beginning of the end for the venerable Gnutella client. But bigger problems were in store for LimeWire.

Buoyed by their victory over Grokster in the infamous 2005 MGM vs Grokster decision, where the Supreme Court remanded the case to the lower courts, the RIAA struck at LimeWire in August of 2006.

"Since the Supreme Court's unanimous Grokster decision last year, we have extended our hand to the major illegal file sharing networks and encouraged them to become legitimate players in the online music marketplace. We have been patient as a number of services – WinMX, Bearshare, Grokster, i2hub, Kazaa – have ultimately decided to close down or transform themselves into legal music services," the RIAA said in a statement.

"Despite numerous efforts to engage LimeWire, the site's corporate owners have shown insufficient interest in developing a legal business model that adequately respects copyrights. While other services have come productively to the table, LimeWire has sat back and continued to reap profits on the backs of the music community. That is unfortunate and has left us no choice but to file a lawsuit to protect the rights and livelihoods of artists, songwriters and record label employees, as well as those companies building legitimate businesses based on music."

LimeWire was also maligned by privacy and government officials for the lack of security on their software. Mark Gorton was forced to testify before a Congressional committee about his software in 2007, and was accused of not doing enough to prevent inadvertent sharing of sensitive files. Unfortunately, this wasn’t really the fault of LimeWire – people simply didn’t know how to use the software properly and accidently shared their entire root directly (like the web hosts of ACS:Law) and would expose their emails, bank statements, and so on. Nevertheless, he was grilled before Congress, which didn’t help the public image of LimeWire.

The End

The trial of Artista Records vs LimeWire didn’t end well for the latter. Yesterday, New York District Court Judge Kimba Wood issued a permanent injunction against LimeWire, preventing it from distributing the software any further. It's also impossible to do anything useful with the LimeWire software, as the company has remotely activated a kill switch, preventing the client from connecting to Gnutella. This spells the end to a long and prolific history of the last file-sharing company legally operating in the United States (the exception is BitTorrent, Inc.). The penalty phase is set to begin in January, where LimeWire’s Mark Gorton could face a billion dollars or more judgment.

LimeWire was there from nearly the very beginning – only a few short months separate its launch in May 14, 2000 from Napster’s launch in June 1999. It withstood virtually all obstacles thrown its way – inheriting a crippled network to become the most popular file-sharing program. Today, LimeWire is no more, but its progeny still exist, and Gnutella remains online. The world may have moved on to BitTorrent, but LimeWire will be remembered as one of the few P2P programs that rank among giants like AudioGalaxy, Napster, Scour. RIP LimeWire.

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File-Sharing/P2P Related :: Software
P2P Clients :: LimeWire

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