Peer-to-peer technology reaches millions of users
(CNN) -- Napster is in a legal battle like no other, but this is just the tip of the iceberg; peer-to-peer (or P2P) file swapping is growing up.
Gnutella and Freenet are just two of the many P2P technologies that will re-define the way we share digital files. If the recording industry thought it had a headache with Napster -- hold on.
"Gnutella is a decentralized system. There's no single server that tells you all the information of who's got what. So there's no single point in the continuum that you can force to shut down," said Aram Sinnreich, senior analyst for Jupiter Media Metrix. "If you take half of the computers that use Gnutella off the system, the other half will still work just fine."
This puts the power into millions of anonymous users' hard drives all over the world, from one peer to another.
One downside is that without a central directory, it's nearly impossible to search for specific files.
"The problem with these is that they're not developed for commercial use, so they're really unwieldy and difficult. Companies like Bearshare specialize in building what is called a front end," said Sinnreich.
A front end is a facade that is put in front of the software, which makes it easier for the consumer to navigate the software.
"Bearshare has built their facade on top of Gnutella and it increases the usability of Gnutella from a consumer standpoint, by an exponential factor," he said.
Bearshare.com is a small but powerful site. You can swap not only music files, but also any digital media like video, pictures and text. Aside from Bearshare, there are other front ends hosted by Gnutella such as Limewire and Furi.
Freenet offers more scalable system
Another criticism of Gnutella is that it can't support as many users simultaneously as Napster can.
Enter the Freenet Project, another grass roots, open-source software program.
"If anything, Freenet is an even more robust and scalable system. That essentially means that if all 60 million users (of Napster) moved onto Freenet tomorrow, it could handle the load. That's something Gnutella can't say," said Sinnreich.
But Freenet does not currently host a user-friendly "front end" such as Gnutella's Bearshare.
In development is Espra.net, which plans to offer similar digital music sharing using Freenet, but with a twist: a voluntary paying system for the music files downloaded.
Sinnreich says the future of P2P is going to be built into virtually every kind of software, from word processing to image manipulators like PhotoShop. But one program -- Aimster -- is the exact opposite. It builds a peer-to-peer files-sharing network on top of an existing system.
In other words, Aimster is like a parasite -- and its host is AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM. (AOL Time Warner is the parent company of CNN.com.)
If you download Aimster, you can share any kind of digital file with anyone on your buddy list -- and that could be up to 60 million buddies.
So far, AOL has made no move to thwart Aimster. But unlike Gnutella and Freenet, Aimster is a sitting duck for lawsuits.
"If you landed an injunction against Aimster, it would shut down tomorrow. But that wouldn't stop anybody else from building another parasite to go on top of the AIM host. There's no way to stop this behavior at the consumer side," says Sinnreich.
Long list of sites
The list of peer-to-peer sites goes on and on. There's no way to control these sites, and as it stands now, no one is making any money off of them.
"The best thing that the record labels can do is offer the consumer something that no free service can afford to give them," sats Sinnreich. He believes that if peer-to-peer sites offered a higher quality experience -- like higher quality music files complete with video and album information, virus protection and guaranteed bandwidth -- people would actually pay a subscription fee.
And Sinnreich says that service could add up to a billion-dollar industry by 2005. Buying singles electronically online could bring in another half a billion.
"There's no question there's a commercial application for peer-to-peer technologies. Sixty million online music fans are a fantastic asset for anyone in the music industry," he says. "If the record labels let Napster die and go away without ever using that installed base they're missing one of the greatest opportunities they've ever faced."
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