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banner Monday, 19 February, 2001, 11:26 GMT
Peering into the future

Napster has revealed that the true stars of the web may be its lowly PCs, rather than the servers which have dominated until now, reports Maggie Shiels from San Francisco.

The personal computer is often described as the dark matter of the internet.

But industry watchers say the successes and the troubles that have plagued Napster prove the humble PC is set to take centre stage in what is being heralded as a networking revolution.

Tim O'Reilly
Tim O'Reilly: P2P in the net's "next level"
Peer to peer file-swapping, or P2P as it is known, is creating such a buzz that the biggest players in high tech are positioning themselves for a slice of the action.

"P2P is going to take the internet to the next level," declared Tim O'Reilly, who organised the first ever major conference on the subject in San Francisco.

Its timing could not have been more poetic, coming just days after the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Napster could be held liable for copyright infringement because it helps people copy and distribute copyrighted music files.

Servers caught napping?

Napster's continuing dominance of the headlines forced Tim O'Reilly to persuade over 400 programmers and investors from all around the world to rub shoulders and mingle amid the splendour of one of the city's most elegant hotels.

"The worry that I had was that some very interesting technical developments were going to be buried under the legal story," says Mr O'Reilly.


P2P is a good thing for Microsoft, definitely. We are very pleased by it

David Stutz
"As a result we might actually see some slowing of the technical innovation because people would be afraid of the space. So I wanted to get the message out loud and clear that there is a lot more P2P than Napster."

While many would agree with that sentiment, there are also those who argue this upstart of a company has breathed new life into an old way of working, one that harks back to the net's very beginning.

It's 30 years since scientists at two California labs connected their machines across a special phone line so they could directly share research.

Peer-to-power

Until Napster, powerful computers called servers were the core of the system, controlling the dissemination of nearly all information on the net.

Shawn Fanning's technology elevated the common PC to the role of a server capable of sending out copies of music files from its hard drive to the hard drives of its peers' on the network.


Consider if you had P2P communities for doctors or for medicine or for lawyers

Andreas Becker
It is this 'give and take' which promises to redefine the internet. The 1.6 million subscribers flocking to Napster got the big boys interested, says Microsoft software architect David Stutz.

"Napster certainly has what we call the 'killer' scenario. People clearly wanted to have more access to music so Napster tapped that vein and came up with something that made big waves.

"It has shown people that peer to peer technology could be used in interesting ways."

A different tune

Music is not the only area that Peer-to-Peer networking is turning things on its head.

Andreas Becker is from Diebold, one of Germany's biggest management and IT groups. He agrees that while music is the easiest media to exploit, there are other rich pickings.

David Stutz (left)
David Stutz (left): The pendulum swings back to PCs
"Consider for example if you had P2P communities for doctors or for medicine or for lawyers. These people have a need for exchanging information and opinions so it could be that we have a Napster for lawyers for the exchange of information."

On the medical front a number of companies are already collaborating to get net users involved in causes ranging from discovering Aids drugs to finding a cure for the flu.

Another organisation, the SETI@home project, has pulled together thousands of PCs on the net to help in the complex task of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Such projects unlock the vast potential of the net's 400 million PCs, as opposed to the 27 million server computers hooked to the web.

Sleeping monster

With most PCs spending 90% of their time idling, it is this cumulative spare processing capacity which has prompted such interest in P2P.

P2P networking has not just put the PC back in vogue, it has also created its own social fabric according to the inventor of one of the industry's main sites.

Freenet allows users to publish information without fear of censorship and its creator 24-year-old Ian Clarke, from County Meath in Ireland, says P2P has some old fashioned empowerment principles at heart.

Ian Clarke
Ian Clarke: P2P is about "giving back"
"The common theme of these peer-to-peer projects is that they encourage people not just to consume information on the internet but to give something back and that is actually what the internet is good at.

"That aspect has been under used until the advent of some of these P2P technologies."

As P2P grows and the amount of information being swapped increases so does the need for faster machines which perhaps explains why companies like Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and Intel are embracing this new world so eagerly.

David Stutz from Microsoft says: "There's a pendulum that swings and we are delighted any time the pendulum swings back to PCs. There was a time when all you heard was the Web. P2P is a good thing for Microsoft, definitely. We are very pleased by it."

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See also:

13 Feb 01 | Business
The man behind Napster
13 Feb 01 | Business
Q&A: What next for Napster?
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