Sunday, February 18, 2001
Napster opened Internet's potential
Music-sharing site may disappear, but peer-to-peer technology should grow
By Matthew Fordahl
The Associated Press
SAN JOSE, Calif. In its essence, the Internet is a file-swapping network, a vast, ever-changing collection of individual computers whose users mainly seek information, collaboration and like-minded souls.
Yet not until Napster came along did businesses begin to realize how to exploit the inherent strengths of this network in bold, new ways that promise to make it easier than ever to communicate.
Many now think that everyday computing is about to change dramatically because of the decentralized, peer-to-peer technology that underlies the embattled music-swapping service.
Intel Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and other large corporations are investing millions of dollars and countless hours in developing business applications that allow groups to swap messages, files and ideas.
And individual computer users already benefit from programs that combine Napster-like file sharing with instant messaging and shield it with a layer of security that limits who can peek at sensitive information.
Thanks to Napster, some of the brightest minds in the high-tech world have realized that the World Wide Web as we've known it only uses a fraction of its potential computing power.
PCs are the dark matter of the Internet, said Clay Shirky, a partner in the investment firm Accelerator Group. There's this vast ocean of untapped computation and storage power at the edge of the 'Net that we're only now just now beginning to integrate with the fabric of the Internet as we know it today.
The ideas behind peer-to-peer are as old as computer networking itself. At first, all connected computers acted as equals including the machines that linked universities at the birth of the Internet.
Yet when the Web took off in the mid-1990s, big commercial and academic sites were run by powerful servers that could process information quickly and efficiently. Desktop PCs were mainly used for browsing.
Peer-to-peer networking never disappeared, but it wasn't until 1999, when Napster emerged to revolutionize how music is distributed online, that its potential began to be realized.
Napster Inc.'s servers create vast directories of songs that are available on the hard drives of individual users, then connect those users directly with each other to trade digital music files.
In the peer-to-peer future, any computing device can be a server, and whatever data is offered for sharing will be beamed to and from all manner of devices, from desktop PCs to wireless hand-held computers.
What really distinguishes peer-to-peer is not the idea that copyrighted material is going to be available all over the 'Net, but the fact that the action is being pushed out to the edges of the network, said Tim O'Reilly, a Sebastapol, Calif.-based technical publisher.
O'Reilly & Associates sponsored a conference last week in San Francisco on the promise of peer-to-peer. About 400 investors and developers were expected to swap ideas and money during the three-day meeting.
Intel, for one, thanks Napster for showing the way.
It's put peer-to-peer on the planet, said Pat Gelsinger, chief technology officer of the Intel Architecture Group. While we were doing peer-to-peer things, we didn't recognize the implications before we saw Napster.
Betting that a demand for more personal processing punch will translate into more chip sales, Intel is working with HP and others to help set standards for peer-to-peer software.
Instead of creating new applications, developers are recreating plumbing, Gelsinger said. What we're trying to do is standardize that plumbing.
Other companies are hoping to capture users of Napster and America Online's industry-leading instant-messaging program, which has millions of registered users.
Aimster, for instance, piggybacks on AOL's instant messenger while offering a platform on which to build more applications.
We've taken elements of AOL and elements of Napster and put them together so that users have even more choices than they would with either one, said Johnny Deep, chief executive of Aimster.
Some think peer-to-peer's greatest moneymaking potential lies in serving businesses that need to collaborate on projects and share information with people in other locations.
Programming guru Ray Ozzie developed Lotus Notes group software for collaborating within a single company. He now leads Groove Networks Inc., whose software, promised for release this spring, is designed to make it much easier for groups to work together inside and outside corporate firewalls.
With Groove, a server is used only to keep track of documents stored on individual machines. Everyone in a group can share documents, instant message each other and collaborate on an online whiteboard in real time, much like scribbling on a napkin during a working lunch.
It's all very secure a business necessity and physical location is immaterial.
If Napster is about taking something you have and sharing it with the world, Groove is about creating secure, shared spaces where you can share things, protecting it from the outside world, Mr. Ozzie said.
Other companies such as Roku Technologies and Endeavors Technology are launching software that takes peer-to-peer beyond desktop computers and into the realm of cellular phones, pagers and hand-held computers.
This software, when fully developed, can turn even hand-held devices into servers, in effect creating small, independent networks.
Endeavors' Magi server software works on desktops as well as smaller devices. Once pulled up on a hand-held device, a document could be relayed to a printer or another computer that handles wireless links.
Businesses are also interested in popular consumer peer-to-peer applications, such as instant messaging and file-sharing. The Jabber Project offers a software foundation on which developers can tweak peer-to-peer applications according their companies' needs.
Despite the promise of peer-to-peer, nobody is claiming that the centralized servers are dead, said Andre Durand, founder of Jabber.com.
For one, companies that want absolute control over documents might not want them spread over several computers.
In the end, being able to do both and being able to leverage the advantages of each when appropriate is smart, he said. This is not a religious war.
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