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Juno’s challenge

Will Juno’s subscribers submit to its distributed computing terms?

CU Assistant Editor Charlie Leonard (who also edits our news almost every day) is a Juno subscriber who has been filling me in on the service’s new supercomputing model. Back in February, Juno announced it was turning itself into a [email protected] service and offering its customers’ used computing cycles to computation-hungry clients. Charlie examined his new service agreement recently, and found some frightening things.

Before getting to the bad stuff, a brief overview. Juno is to be commended for trying new revenue models. You can’t continue to lose $30 million per quarter forever, no matter how much market share you have. The free service currently relies on advertising delivered to its 14 million subscribers’ hard drives. The new supercomputer project is similar in that it involves users downloading client software that runs screen saver-type programs on their PCs. In this case, instead of ads, the client software takes unused processor power and uses it to crunch numbers. The theory is that with millions of computers all crunching the same problem, the collective power will be in the billions of megahertz. That’s a lot of power for pharmaceutical companies to find just the right gene sequence that allows them to cure Alzheimer’s.

So it seems like a cool way to keep Juno alive — until you read the fine print, that is. While Juno will be asking for volunteers to test the service, the agreement states that free subscribers may at some point be required to download the supercomputing client, as they are now required to download the ad-serving client. And while the contract says may, you can read that it will make this a requirement in the not-too-distant future.

Juno says the supercomputing client won’t be more intrusive than the ad-serving client. But this is just false. First of all, there is some doubt about the security of such a large system taking over “unused” computing power. Second, the agreement will require free subscribers to keep their computers on and awake at all times. With escalating electricity costs, my hunch is that most free subscribers will opt to pay 15 bucks a month to use the pay service, or switch providers. As a recent PC World story shows, Juno subscribers range from worried to extremely upset.

And it gets worse. Though the agreement says it will only require free subscribers to download the client, all subscribers must sign the agreement, causing several paid subscribers to fear that their free CPU cycles will be the next objects of Juno’s desires. Whether that is a rational fear or not, it’s real. Juno will lose a lot of its paid subscribers as a result.

It will be interesting to see if Juno survives this year. Clearly, it was heading for dot death within the year under its old business plan. My hunch is this new plan will result in two things: a substantial reduction in subscribers (and costs) and an increase in revenues. So it will have its desired effects. But will it be enough to offset the lost ad revenue and subscription fees? Only time will tell.

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser magazine and

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