GUBA, Google of the Usenet?

Lost amidst the hype and hoopla around the Web 2.0 is an inherent truth: the web is not the Internet, but instead a part of the Internet. Internet relay chats, email, peer-to-peer networks, and the dark web are all part of the Internet and account for more data traffic than the web. And then there is the Usenet – vanished from public memory, but still thriving, throbbing with activity. When people think of Usenet, they think of text – not multimedia. Sure the torrent-nets and eDonkey’s get all the attention, many don’t know that organic nature of the Usenet has made it relatively a treasure trove of videos, files, images and other multimedia content.

gubaI recently had a chance to meet with a company called GUBA, and well they are literally a stone’s throw away from my apartment in downtown San Francisco. The company had started way back in 1998 by former Apple and Sony executives. Born smack in middle of the biggest funding orgy of out lives, the company chose to do it alone, and set about to building a graphical interface for the Usenet. At the time there were a lot of standalone clients like GigaNews that could be used to access the Usenet content.

GUBA wanted to make everything simpler, and use the browser as a window on to the Usenet. But instead of focusing on text, which was a big part of what DejaNews (now part of Google), GUBA decided to make a play for finding rich media in the Usenet groups. “We wanted it to be a subscription service, ” says Thomas Mcinerney, who started the company with Eric Lambrecht. “ISPs used to charge for Usenet and well, that’s what we thought was the business model.”

“A lot of people ask is Usenet is relevant,” says Mcinerney, “It is still very dynamic, even though it is not indexed by major search engines. A lot of people have forgotten about it.” He points out that nearly 2 terrabytes of data is added to the usenet every day, and it still is the liveliest community on the Internet. “Linux was first posted by linus on Usenets but then the web came along and fractured the internet in many ways.”

Here is what Guba does:

* Crawls Usenet for multimedia content, indexing over 300,000 files a day (currently only videos and images).
* Automatically indexes the content via metadata tags, so it can be easily viewed, sorted, filtered and searched.
* Universal playback – converts video content from any format so that users can immediately play the video, eliminating the need for different
players/Codec’s.

Talking about the doom-days, Mcinerney says, “We did not do any crazy parties. we used to wonder if we were missing out on action. we were kind of vindicated when the bubble burst.” He points out that the company has tens of thousands of customers who pay $15 a month for their service, and have helped the company grow organically and become solidly profitable. Surprisingly the service has been around for so long, but the company has only now decided to come out of the shadows.

Why? Are these guys crazy and are willing to invite the ire of the entire movie industry? Have they not seen what has happened to the others in the past? “I think we are taking a calculated risk in going public. Sure its risky, but there is a payoff ,” says Mcinerney. “We would like to work with the studios and the Yahoo and Google. ”

“I think it is a significant that our consumers pay for content, though it is unlimited content,” he offers as a defense. “There is actual strong demand for the product. I want to work with content companies to become a distribution channel.” He even wants to distribute ring-tones, and offer stuff using Flash-format. He offers the DMCA argument, but I some how don’t buy that. “We are just a search engine, and we help find it.” I worry about the knee jerk reaction of Hollywood types. He points out that since they are only an index, they can actually take out the copyrighted stuff out of the index. Oh oh… do I hear Napster again!

Of course one thing they don’t have to worry about – anyone copying their idea and coming up with a solution overnight. I played around with it, and found some of the good shows I like – Alias for one. Few episodes of 24 and Big Brother. Lots of erotica, but there is a safe mode. It is super easy to use, the searches are pretty accurate and well the downloads are amazingly fast, unlike the P2P networks. No need to worry about decoding the files, because the system does it for you.

The spam and other nefarious stuff is removed from the index, using some proprietary technologies. When you do a search for something you get thumb nail previews and you can do a whole bunch of sorting etc. The content on usenet is being constantly refreshed unlike the web, so it forces you to go back to the service again and again. I am currently watching a 1950s commercial for Winston cigarettes, with who else but Flintstones shilling the smokes. That’s just priceless.

I am saving the best for the last: they will soon offer downloads that will play on the video iPod.

What is Usenet?

* Usenet was created in 1979 as a collaborative effort between Duke University and UNC.
* Usenet today is a global message board with millions of active users and over 2 terabytes of content added daily. Usenet is the largest such community in the world.
* Users find and post content through “newsreaders” – programs such as Outlook Express and Mozilla Thunderbird.
* Most web-surfers have Usenet access through their ISP. However, finding and posting multimedia content to Usenet is difficult using these programs due to outdated protocols + access methodology.

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