A Kiwi company says it has come up with a new way of linking computers over the internet that it believes could turn it into another Google.
Manabars Technologies has gone back to the drawing board to design a computer processor so simple that it can't be hacked. Or so the company says.
But rather than build the processor, it has emulated its design in software, and is claiming that gives it a platform for dozens of applications - everything from a piracy-free music distribution system to spam-free email. The breakthrough, says co-inventor David Hughes - and it's the subject of two patent applications to the World Intellectual Property Organisation - is a unique use of mathematical set theory, which insulates the system from external attack.
If it sounds too good to be true, that's certainly the view of American Bruce Schneier, described as a "security guru" by The Economist. Schneier hasn't studied Manabars' patent applications but thinks "unhackability" is as attainable as being able to revive the dead. "Security isn't math; math is one-hundredth of security," Schneier says.
Better security than provided by mainstream computing was just one of the goals when Hughes and collaborators began working on Manabars six years ago. The aim was to start again: to get rid of the "mess" of web applications on top of the internet, or transport layer; which in turn runs on Windows or another operating system which gives life to computer hardware.
Credit for nutting out the Manabars "kernel" goes to Adrian Meeking, whose name appears with Hughes and two others on the patent applications. Turning the kernel into an application platform started out as a joint venture with Unitec computing students, with financial support of more than $12,000 from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.
As the platform has taken shape, more than 150 investors have chipped in about $1.5 million, so that Manabars today employs 15 software developers, many of them former students, with Hughes as technology chief. They've produced something with so much apparent potential, it's difficult to explain.
It's best thought of as software for managing a grid of computers. The grid, or network - which is connected via the internet, but parallel to it - might be running any of the numerous applications Hughes can think of. One use - and here's where comparisons with Google come in - is as a storage location, accessible from any kind of device, including a mobile phone, for personal files such as email, photos or any other type of data.
So far, a couple of applications have been developed - a "spam-free" email package and web server software - and sold for $400,000 to Turner Technologies, an Auckland company that owns a small stake in Manabars.
An integral part of Manabars, Hughes says, is a micro-payment system that will reward users with "computational credits" for creating content or renting out resources - processing power, bandwidth, or storage space - that others use. The credits might be used to buy services or, eventually, exchanged for cash.
The payment system underpins another application for which Hughes is working on a proof-of-concept, one that Manabars is hoping Sony might pick up in New Zealand. It is a music distribution platform designed to lure illegal downloaders into the world of legitimate file exchange by paying them for content they add to Sony's songs - a review, say - while extracting the fee for the song itself.
That application is the brainchild of Manabars investor and executive chairman Allan Rutledge, who had the distinction of setting up Auckland's first FM radio station, 89FM. Rutledge says the sale of such applications, rather than access to the Manabars grid, which will be free, is how the company expects to make money.
Manabars investor and long-time distributor of IT products John Dunbar is unaware of anything that rivals Manabars. The kind of problem to which it might be applied is one that Google-owned video sharing site YouTube is proclaiming it has solved. Every time a user posts a Simpsons clip, say, on YouTube, Google is vulnerable to copyright violation claims. Late last month, it said it had signed a deal with licensing organisations that collect royalties on behalf of copyright owners.
Manabars' embedded charging system would automatically pay those royalties, Hughes says. The company has thought of "40 major blockbuster opportunities" of a similar sort for monetarising online content but it's not quite ready to capitalise on them. "We can't touch that stuff yet until we've attracted more funding or got some revenue."
Investors who want to give Google a run for its money are welcome.
* Manabars Technologies has developed a new way of managing a grid of computers - on or off the internet.
* The company says its system provides a platform for everything from piracy-free music distribution to spam-free email.
* A built-in payment system offers a way to charge for online content.
* The system is said to be insulated from attacks by hackers.
* Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland-based technology journalist