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August 2, 2000

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Pointera plans a Web 30 times larger

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Beej Jasani

In a small, warehouse-like office space in Palo Alto, California, a big concept has steadily taken shape.

It is a concept with enormous potential, a technology that is surely gaining momentum. And while it has shaken up the entertainment industry and slapped lawsuits on start-ups, File Sharing, as it is called, seems like it's here to stay.

So now, computer users can find, download and share information stored on others' hard drives, including the hard drives of strangers living anywhere in the world.

Palo Alto-based Pointera allows exactly this. And consequently, with people's PCs adding to the pool of available information, the Web gets much bigger.

"What we're basically building is the world's biggest information exchange... 30 times bigger than existing search engines," says Manish Vij, Pointera's 27-year-old founder.

Designed to run within any standard Web browser, Pointera, which calls itself an applications service provider, hopes to license its technology to portals and content sites. Over time, its viral nature could empower all of the 300 million mainstream users with the ability to share files.

When a search engine that uses Pointera responds to a user query, search results include not only regular, indexed commercial sites, but also relevant files off people's computer hard discs. So searching for the music group 'N Sync, for example, would bring up news items and official sites of the group, as well as downloadable music and video clips from individual fans.

Pointera currently powers, a teen site focused on music. With Pointera technology, however, users can share all kinds of files - from Microsoft Office and HTML files, to MP3s and video clips. "A lot of what we find people sharing is the latest Hindi film clips," remarks Vij.

What sets Pointera apart is that it ensures legitimate file-sharing.

"We basically play the good guys and allow people to do the right thing... we allow filtering and plugging into Digital Rights Management," Vij says, of Pointera's copyright enforcement features that portals and content sites can take advantage of.

Digital Rights Management, a fairly recent phenomenon, ensures that the rights of the original intellectual property owner are not violated, thus reducing piracy of digital content.

"A Digital Rights Management solution provides a level of security that the majority of society will require, in order to securely share files," says Alex Saenger, vice president of marketing & operations at Aegisoft Corporation, a Maryland-based provider of DRM technology. "It's when the rights of the Intellectual Property owner get abused, that people get nervous," he adds.

Integrated with anti-virus scanners, Pointera's software also protects against viruses, scanning automatically when a file is downloaded.

And what about hackers?

"If there is something that's shared, it's shared with the world at large, of course. Anytime you permit access to your PC, there is definitely a risk," concedes Vij. "I think these are risks that are generally true with all file-sharing technology, and are not unique to Pointera alone," he concludes.

Specific, sensitive folders (systems folders, for example) are not shareable, the company claims. "Usually you share a subset of your 'My Documents' folder," explains Vij.

"I think Pointera has the potential to improve searches within particular niches," acknowledges Abbot Chambers, senior director of search and directory for Excite@Home. "But," he adds, "I just don't think that average users have particularly valuable information sitting on their hard drives. If there is some kind of desirable material, then that material is desirable only because professional sites are wary of posting it themselves," he says.

Dave Steer, communications director at the nonprofit watchdog organization, TRUSTe, cautions, "The ability to share files also means the ability to be known at times. From the privacy standpoint, the one thing to watch out for is to be able to remain anonymous if you choose so. And that's the caveat."

In spite of valid concerns, peer-to-peer file-sharing continues to grow at an astonishing pace. Pointera's initial estimates projected the market to be worth $ 1.3 billion, growing about 30-50 per cent a year. Vij was taken aback when analysts thought those were conservative estimates.

Pointera is currently in talks with two of the top five portals. However, Vij declined to give names, since official deals are pending. Looking ahead, the firm plans to focus on corporate enterprise, selling its technology to companies for private file-sharing between employees.

A graduate of UC Berkeley, Vij worked at Microsoft in Seattle for about three years. Homesick, he returned to Saratoga and founded Pointera.

Founding start-ups seems to run in the family. Vij's father founded Alantec, which was later acquired for a little under a billion dollars. "He definitely set my path," Vij says of his father who has been appointed COO of Pointera.

So now the father and son go to work together. Says Manish Vij, "It's very odd... on a Sunday, we'll come home from work, do puja, and have dinner. Then we'll sit around talking business. There's no separation between work and home."

Executives from companies like Amazon, Microsoft and AOL fund Pointera. Vijay Vashee, a general manager at Microsoft, and one of the angel investors, is all praise.

"Technologies like Pointera start giving more power to the people," he says.

Lydia Loizides, an analyst in web technology at Jupiter Communications questions the future direction of file-sharing.

"Over time, it still remains to be seen what the popularity of file-sharing will be and where it will lie. Will it lie in music-sharing? Document-sharing? Or image-sharing?"

Marc Andreessen, the inventor of the Netscape browser, believes that file-sharing will revolutionize the Internet just as his own invention did, not too long ago.

Who knows? The possibilities seem endless. And, for a company like Pointera, only time will tell.

Next: Rupee on threshold of a disastrous fall?

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