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Peer-to-Peer Makes the Internet Interesting Again

by Andy Oram
09/22/2000

By the summer of 2000, it looked like the Internet had fallen into predictable patterns. Retail outlets had turned the Web into the newest mail order channel, while entertainment firms used it to rally fans. Portals and search engines presented a small slice of Internet offerings in the desperate struggle to win eyes for banner ads. The average user, stuck behind a firewall at work or burdened with usage restrictions on a home connection, settled down to sending e-mail and passive viewing.

In a word, boredom. Nothing much to write about, or for creative souls to look forward to. An Olympic sports ceremony that would go on forever.

At that moment a number of shocks exploded upon the public. The technologies were not precisely new, but a number of people realized for the first time that they were having a wide social impact. First, Napster (preceded by Scour) caused a ruckus over its demands on campus bandwidth, as well as its famous legal problems. A new generation of distributed file servers like Freenet and Gnutella were widely reported. The founders of a new chat service called Jabber declared that XML was more than a tool for B2B transaction processing, and in fact could structure information chosen by ordinary users. Shortly after that, Microsoft announced they were betting the house on the .NET initiative, in which Web clients and servers divide jobs among themselves.

Analysts trying to find the source of inspiration among these developments also noted that the computing model of the SETI@Home project, which exploited processing power that had gone to waste for years, was being commercialized by a number of ventures. And that a new world of sporadically connected Internet nodes was emerging in laptops, handhelds, and cell phones, with more such nodes promised for the future in the form of household devices.

What thread winds itself around all these developments? In various ways they return content, choice, and control to ordinary users. Tiny end points on the Internet, sometimes without even knowing each other, exchange information and form communities. There are no more clients and servers -- or at least, the servers retract themselves discreetly. Instead, the significant communication takes place between cooperating peers. And thus, starting around early July 2000, the new Internet model was dubbed peer-to-peer.

Mapping the terrain at the summit

In August, Tim O'Reilly surmised that peer-to-peer technology could evolve faster if key leaders, each of whom "had a hand on a piece of the elephant," started talking intensively to each other. Furthermore, he hoped they could emerge from a summit with a message to help the public understand the potential of peer-to-peer. In particular, he wanted to counteract the negative image often attached to the movement and its most visible expressions, such as Napster and Gnutella.

Organized by numerous departments across O'Reilly & Associates, the summit on September 18 in San Francisco was attended by some 20 people whose expertise ranged across the computer field. (See list in accompanying Web page.) They included technologists from major companies, visionary heads of startups, journalists, leaders of academic and experimental projects, and people who have just done a variety of interesting things in the information processing field and are always looking for the next interesting thing.

The meeting took place in a modest conference room in the Lone Mountain Center of the University of San Francisco, located atop a hill that offered gorgeous views in every direction. The day went fast, even though most participants looked tired at the end. Several expressed pleasure at being in the same room with such an aggressively innovative bunch of people. Our agenda broke down pretty much as follows:

  • Define peer-to-peer. Decide what we want from it and why we're in it.

  • Describe the opportunities for the use of peer-to-peer. For what problems is it a good candidate? What key memes characterize it?

  • Come up with a message to offer the public.

The energy in the day rose and fell in a kind of bell curve. At first we were getting to know each other and setting the groundwork for discussion. It was notable how often someone would state what he felt to be a defining characteristic of peer-to-peer (such as "it can't do searches for poorly understood items") only to be vigorously contradicted by somone from another project. Being geeks to some extent, the group could become highly animated over minor technical points, such as whether instant messaging passes text through a central server (the answer is sometimes) where a snoop could theoretically monitor content. We also got incensed over the threat of software patents.

But in the descending rays of afternoon sun, when we tried to extract a simple set of principles from our experience, we found out how new and unformed the field is. Simple generalities couldn't hold up to dispassionate observation. At the end of the day, literally, we had to be content with listing the early successes of peer-to-peer and suggesting a vision that many of us are fashioning.

Still, some themes emerge from a number of peer-to-peer projects.

Pages: 1, 2, 3

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