Introducing, Grouper

One great thing about the current spate of digital disruptions is that entrepreneurs are finally getting their groove back. I just read that Pyra Labs founder Evan Williams is off to do another start-up. Nick Denton has reinvented himself as Gawker founder. Yesterday as luck would have it I got to chat with Josh Felser who in past life had co-founded early streaming music company Spinner like all companies Of a certain era were bought by sucker number one America Online for $320 million.

Felser has a new company called Grouper. He got the idea about a year ago when he had come back from a trip to burning man. He found he could not share the photos and videos with his friends and family. So what did he do — he roped in his former partner and teamed up with two former Microserfs and ex-AOLer and started Grouper. “I was lucky to find a problem which is faced by others as well,” says Felser.

I agree. Ever since we got digital cameras, video cameras and all sorts of music on our ever-expanding hard drive, we have found a new desire to share our “digital clutter” with others. Online photo sharing services, which make you sign-up and are slowed by adverts, are particularly annoying. Sharing videos has been all but impossible, and legal issues around music makes it very tough for us to share the tunes. Grouper does address some of those frustrations.

It is a simple application — about 1.2 megabytes – which when installed allows you to share photos, videos files and music using peer-to-peer networking technologies. You create your own private network, which is strictly by invitation only. The app is very simple, and easy to set-up. It scans your hard drive, asks some basic questions about which folders you want to share and presto makes them available. I was up and running within ten minutes, sharing files. In case you were wondering about the legality of music sharing, the software doesn’t really allow downloads but streams music using the windows media file format.

MP3 files are converted to windows media format, and are streamed at a lower bit rate, about 32-bits. As you might remember, this is exactly what Mercora does. No luck for those of us who have our music files in Ogg Vorbis or AAC formats. “We allow you to share all files except music (mp3) files,” says Felser. Since Grouper does not allowing public broadcasts, and since the courts allowed TiVo to share files among certain kind of users, Felser points out Grouper is on a solid legal ground.

I am not sure why the application needs its own instant messenger when the Software can easily lap into the open APIs of IM software like AIM, Yahoo and MSN. I argued this before and I say it again, getting users to create another network when we already have preexisting networks around say AIM and MSN. “Our own IM allows us to do one click sharing,” Felser defends his decision to use his own IM protocol. I think someone like Mirra should license their software and make their semi-intelligent hard drives more valuable.

Anyway back to Grouper. I am pretty excited about this app, even though it is only for Windows XP and Windows 2K. The 10-person company which has been self funded by ex-Spinners has done a bang-up job of designing a really easy and simple to use interface, and I am pretty sure it will pass the Grandma test. I cannot wait for the Mac OS-X version to come out – Felser promises a version in three-to-five months. The company in the near term is going to offer a free download, but eventually will offer a premium version with bonus features.

The most vital reason why Grouper exists, and will possibly thrive is because of broadband. I think without broadband sharing is an oxymoron. Grouper has done a good job of optimizing the software for the 128-kilobits per second upload speeds, but as both DSL and Cable Broadband providers boost the upstream speeds, I am pretty confident, we will see some new uses for this software.

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