Rock-and-roll is here to stay, and it seems like Napster and its many imitators are also in it for the long haul. Any businessperson who hasn't heard about the electronic-music distribution program, and the many copyright-infringement lawsuits filed against the company in the past year, has been living on a different planet. More than likely, however, most just look at it as another toy for teenage kids who like to sit in their bedroom, sulking, with headphones over their ears.
But those kids may be on to something. It took a long time for most people to realize that the Internet could help businesses. For its first few years, the Web was regarded primarily as a haven for perverts and programmers. A few years from now, Napster may be looked at not as a momentary, questionably legal fad, but as a pioneer in a new way of tapping the potential of the Internet, which folks are calling peer-to-peer.
Back to the bedroom of our prototypical teenager: In the early days of the Web, if she wanted a pirated version of the new Nirvana track, she could have ferreted out obscure Web sites or FTP servers, and clicked to begin downloading it to her PC. (This would have taken an awfully long time, by the way.)
Employees in an office pull files off the company server in much the same way: If Employee A wants to send Employee B the Johnson report -- or the new Radiohead single -- he can put a copy of it on the server, and B can, in turn, create a copy on her hard drive.
A peer-to-peer program, on the other hand, cuts out the middleman. If I want an MP3 file, I can reach right into your hard drive and take it.
Programs like Napster still employ central servers, but they contain no music files -- only a list of hard drives that do. The software searches these hard drives for whatever term the user chooses. Other applications (including the popular Gnutella) use an even more decentralized scheme, in which users are connected to one another in a gigantic daisy chain. Searches must pass through each node in the chain. In both cases, the user still downloads the file directly from another user.
Letting Peers Peer
So far this technology has not proven itself to be anything more than a fancy method to make mix tapes and an effective way to attract lawsuits. But similar systems are being dreamed up for the business world.
One could, for instance, make collaborating easier. Right now, most electronic collaboration systems simply keep track of the changes each author makes to a single, central document, and then notify all participants when any change has been made. Peer-to-peer collaboration would mean that whenever someone changed the document or created a new version on his hard drive, the version on yours would change, as well. The programmers of Qualcomm's Eudora e-mail application already have included a function that does something very similar.
Peer-to-peer applications may also drive online business-to-business exchanges. These are essentially mini-markets -- places where buyers, sellers, suppliers, demanders, and speculators come to look for the best deals. One problem market-makers have always had is that buyers and sellers are unwilling to share information about what they really need or what they really have.
Some believe markets could be made more transparent and efficient by Napster-like applications that could peer into companies' inventory systems and figure out if two of them could make a deal. Neither party need even know who the other one is.
The idea seems promising, but when you encounter the two biggest buzzwords of the past year -- B2B and P2P (if in fact these can be considered words) -- be sure to have your hype-detector handy.
Whether any of these grand experiments will develop into a platform for business as well as pleasure is difficult to tell. No one predicted the ascendancy of the Web. And keep in mind that Buddy Holly, shortly before his death, told an interviewer he thought rock-and-roll would last only two or three more years.
David G. Propson is features editor for SBC. Want a question answered? E-mail us at email@example.com.