Going to California

Life by the Valley — 3.2

“How long does it take to download a file?” Jim asked.

“It depends on your bandwith,” I said. “Faster pipe, faster download.”

Jim and Doug shared a smile. For years, going as far back as our time together at Illuminati Online back in Austin, they had been consipring over great ways to use technology. At various times, Doug had come to me asking for help putting together logos for a bank based on a digital currency and a point-to-point encrypted phone system that he and Jim had dreamed up. With cable modems and other higher-speed Internet connections spreading out across not just America but the rest of the world, and the dot-com madness nearing what we’d later know to be its peak, it was the right time for well-heeled geeks to make an inventive move.

Like Doug, Jim McCoy had moved to California from Austin for a virtual-reality start-up called Electric Communities. After more rounds of funding than anyone thought possible — good money repeatedly being thrown after bad — E.C. had finally collapsed, the fantasy of cyberspace vanishing in the face of reality. People did not want to walk through 3-D virtual storefronts, they wanted to search Web pages like the Sears catalogs that had ruled most of the Twentieth Century. Happily, E.C. closed down well before the financial market went bust, in time for most of its decent people to leap into various other ventures.

Doug had co-founded a company called C2Net. At the time, the U.S. government wouldn’t let American companies export products offering strong encryption, which we now take for granted as what makes Internet commerce possible. You can imagine how the U.S. government might want to limit foreign countries from encrypting their network traffic. To get around the export problem, Doug hired a bunch of coders in the U.K. and, using a leaked version of the protected crypto algorythm, became the first American company to offer a Web server with strong crypto to the rest of the world.

Jim had gone off to a twenty-person start-up called RocketMail, which offered what at the time was a new thing: email, but on the Web. Crazy, I know, though one of the high-growth portal sites, Yahoo!, decided it was crazy-like-a-fox and bought RocketMail, rebranding it Yahoo! Mail and offering it alongside their other services as one more way to keep people in their Web browser, looking at other Yahoo! pages, specifically. This made Yahoo! seem much more well-rounded, suddenly competing with services like America Online (or AOL, as they’d eventually call themselves) as a one-stop Internet experience.

Yahoo! stock had swelled alongside all the other so-called dot-coms, making geeky Jim McCoy, of the thick, wire-rimmed glasses and ratty ponytail, quite wealthy. It only took one eye-surgery and a haircut — along with the confidence that comes from knowing you’re not just a bad ass, you’ve also got millions of dollars to back you up — to make Jim look at a glance like the cool guy I’d always known him to be.

C2Net, on the other hand, had stalled out somewhere along the way. Other companies followed Doug’s strategy of coding crypto outside the U.S., eventually causing the export ban to be lifted. While that was a great achievement, the company’s commercial success remained elusive. Doug and his co-founder, Sameer Parekh, both took jobs with Kroll-O’Gara to do security consulting while their company worked out its next steps.

It’s great when someone you like becomes wildly successful. It’s even better when two people you like, who are also good friends, both become wildly successful. However, it’s slightly awkward-making when only one of them profits wildly from great success. Jim had lost none of the exciting energy that had driven him for so long, while Doug’s cool confidence seemed to vibrate with an anxiety that only seemed to calm when the two old friends would look at each other and smile. Clearly, they had a plan.

“It doesn’t matter how big a pipe you’ve got,” said Doug. “I mean, it does — it matters a lot — but what matters a lot more, a lot more often, is how big a pipe the server has.”

“Imagine if a server has one big file,” Jim said, gesturing with his hands. “If a thousand people want that file—”

“If only a thousand people want it,” Doug added.

“—then the server needs a thousand times as much bandwidth as the people at home.”

“In technical terms,” Doug said, “that’s a gigantic ass-load of network pipe.”

“So,” said Jim. “Imagine I’m a server, and Doug has already started downloading a file, and then you reach out to me because you want the file, too. But because I’m also trickling the file out in little chunks to a thousand other people at the same time, you can’t pull it down as fast as you would otherwise. What if there was some way you could ask Doug to send you the parts of the file that he had already downloaded, while you focused on getting new parts from the server?”

“You’d get the file a bit faster,” I said, “though presuming Doug is some random home user, his upload bandwidth is going to be pretty shitty.”

Doug nodded. “This is true,” he said. “But what if the server to put you in touch with everyone who’d ever downloaded that file—”

“At least,” Jim said, “everyone who was online right then—”

“—and who still had pieces of the file that you didn’t have,” Doug added, “then you can max out a home Internet connection, even a fast one.”

“You could even encourage people to stay online, sharing little bits of files with other people, hugely magnifying any server’s download power,” Jim said.

“How?” I asked.

“With a crypto-currency,” Doug said, “or at least something that can’t trivially be counterfeited, which downloaders can give to file-sharers, essentially ‘buying’ preferential treatment and better service. Then the file-sharers can re-use the digital coins with other sharers, making their own downloads even faster.”

“We call it mojo,” Jim said. “You want me to share something with you, so you share some of your mojo with me. I spend mojo to get something from someone else.”

“Or you don’t spend mojo, so your download takes longer but still not as long as if your download was throttled by a single server’s pipe.” Doug and Jim smiled again. “The plan is for us to seed the system with a bunch of mojo, and to reward sharers with extra mojo even if downloaders aren’t paying for what they’re keeping online.”

“And if users want more mojo?” I asked.

“They buy it from us,” Doug said.

“Imagine you have two dials,” said Jim. “You want something faster, you turn the mojo knob and pay for the service. You want more mojo, you dial up the storage knob and let the service store more little bits of files for sharing. We give people mojo to host files, even if they’re not being actively downloaded, to persist files in the system. The next morning you wake up to find you’ve earned mojo.”

“Or you buy more mojo from us,” Doug added.

I felt like I was missing something. “So you’re talking to different companies about making deals to share their content?”

Again, Jim and Doug glanced at each other, but this time they seemed to be trying hard not to smile.

“Not per se,” Doug said, breaking into a grin. “The beautiful thing is that this doesn’t require the content people to do anything.”

“How so?”

Jim shrugged. “Once a file’s been uploaded into the system, split up into however many tiny little pieces across however many computers, it doesn’t need a main server to host the file at all. All you need is someone to track who’s offering which file.”

Doug raised his hand. “That’s also us.”

Jim continued. “If you want a file, you ask us who’s got some pieces of it, and we put you in touch with your peers. Then it’s a peer-to-peer conversation after that. We don’t even know what content you’re talking about, all we’re doing is putting you in touch with other people who have data you think you want.” He shrugged with cherubic innocence. “And if you spend mojo, everything goes faster.”

My mind thrummed from shock. Somewhere, what remained of the fourteen-year-old software pirate I had once been began to laugh. For the first time I could remember, I had a hard time speaking.

“Motherfucking any file, you’re talking about,” I managed to get out. “Any file, from anywhere, but it wouldn’t be stored anywhere, it would be everywhere. And you wouldn’t know who had downloaded it, so no one could go after you for serving it.”

Jim smiled, nodding. “It would be hard to prove that anyone ever had the whole file. All we could say is that these people were thought to have some pieces of a file matching a certain fingerprint at one point in time. If you can’t bust a search engine for serving up a link to something, then it’s not illegal to connect the people who have data with the people who want data. The people who have it don’t even need to know what they have. All they know is that they’ve carved out part of their hard drive as part of Mojo Nation.”

“Mojo Nation,” I said. “I like it.”

“The speed is important,” Doug said idly, “when you imagine that a compact disc full of music is, like, 600 or 650 megabytes, so at 48K per second—”

“If you’re lucky,” Jim added.

“—that’s, like, three and a half hours. If you can max out a DSL line, you’re talking less than 15 minutes.”

“No, you’re not,” I said quietly, and both of their eyes snapped wide open. Quickly, I added, “At my last job, after they laid off everyone around me, I took over a couple of computers that no one was using any longer and passed the days copying all the CDs I owned — then about a hundred CDs that sat in a big, fat disc changer in our break room, then stacks and stacks of CDs that I’d borrowed from friends — to the hard drives of one machine or another and then converting the music to MP3. It took at least an hour per disc just to copy the data to the hard drive, then it could take a couple of hours to convert the audio with reasonable compression, so I’d usually spend the day copying CDs onto the machines and then kick off the conversion before heading home. Once it was digital, though, you’re only talking 65 megabytes per CD.”

“What?!” they both said at the same time.

“There’s no way you’re going to get an order of magnitude savings,” Doug began, then he paused, thinking.

I shook my head. “It’s more that most CDs are only about 45-minutes long. But yes, I swear, you’re talking something like 65 or maybe 80 megs for a lot of albums, with perfectly reasonable compression.”

Jim grinned. “So that’s half an hour to drive to a music store, buy a CD, and drive home, but a minute and a half to download it.”

Doug began making notes. “We’ll do the math,” he said with a tone of doubt, then he paused again. “Do you know how many megabytes a video ends up being?”

“Uh…no.” Suddenly, somehow, I felt like an idiot. It was the obvious next question. The truth was that I’d never had a computer powerful enough to do much with video. But I should’ve at least thought about it. Leave it to Doug to stay a step ahead.

“I don’t know what your schedule looks like,” Jim said, “but we’ll need a logo at some point.”

“Done,” I said, drunk from shock but clear on what I could easily do.

Walking back to Doug’s place in the cool evening air, I looked up at the stars. “It’s beautiful out here,” I said, fanning my arms out along my sides.

“It is indeed,” he said.

“I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe what you’ve come up with. That is genuinely the craziest thing I have ever heard in my entire life.”

“Well, thanks,” said Doug. But the further we got from downtown Mountain View, and the further we wound through the neat rows of clean, suburban homes, the more his shoulders slouched forward and the more slowly he walked.

“Ah,” he said once we rounded the final bend toward his house. “I see my girlfriend is not home yet. I was hoping you’d finally get to meet her.”

“Cool,” I said. “I’m looking forward to it; I’m sure she’s awesome.”

Doug laughed. He’d been married when I’d known him in Austin, though clearly he wasn’t married any longer.

“Whatever happened with Amanda?”

“Oh,” he said, “you know.” He told me the story. It wasn’t that different in principle from other stories I’d heard before, people being people anywhere you go, with the upshot that Doug being Doug, and rarely being without a girlfriend, he came out of the story with a girlfriend.

“What’s she up to this evening?” I asked.

“Oh, she’s probably finishing up at school. She’s getting her MBA from the Haas School of Business.” He checked my face. “It’s a famous business school,” he added.

“I figured,” I said. We walked up his front lawn.

“No, I mean it’s a really big deal.” Doug sighed. “I also applied, but they didn’t accept me.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, that sucks.”

“Well,” he said, shrugging, fumbling with a keyring. “The only thing I asked her is not to talk about it all the time. I told her I could take hearing about it for no more than fifteen minutes every day, and that’s it.” He made a cutting motion in the air. When we walked in, he stood gripping a chair-back for several moments before that unnamed frenetic energy of Silicon Valley swelled again, and he looked up. “Something to drink?” he asked.

“Water, please,” I said.

“You’ll meet her soon enough, I’m sure,” he said. He shrugged, handing a glass. “She’ll be home soon. I just hope she doesn’t ask me to do her homework again. The instructor evidently asked them to put together, like, a basic spreadsheet, and she couldn’t do it.” He chuckled. “She just didn’t know how. I was like, ‘You’re going to business school, and you don’t know how to use Excel,’ and she said, ‘I thought you were going to help me,’ and I was like, ‘I can’t do all your homework for you. You’re the one who got into business school, knock yourself out.’”

“Jesus,” I said. “Oh, hey — I wanted to say: thanks again for letting me stay with you.”

“It’s no trouble,” he said. Then his face softened. “Thanks for hanging out. It’s fun.”

“It is,” I said. “And that is a crazy, fucking brilliant idea you have there. I want to hear more about it.”

“Indeed,” he said, bowing slightly.

The whole world would hear more about the idea, in a lightly reduced different form, though they’d call it Bit Torrent, and it would in fact transform how files were shared — legally or otherwise — on the Internet. But we’ll get there. In the meantime, I had my own work to do.

 

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