The Year of Peer

P2P gains some eager believers

It was launched, like many great revolutions, with a song.

Last year, Napster — in addition to enriching many digital music collections — sparked a fast-growing movement behind peer-to-peer computing. P2Ps apostles are convinced 2001 will be the Year of Peer, ushering in an new era of Internet computing.

"Theres tremendous excitement, a tremendous number of people trying to do things in this arena," says Bob Knighten, Intels peer-to-peer evangelist.

Peer-to-peer computing essentially flips the Web on its head. Instead of using enormous centralized Web server farms to distribute information, P2P uses the processing power, disk drives and bandwidth of thousands of PCs sprinkled around the Internet to share files, collaborate, crunch numbers — or perform any number of tasks in a highly distributed way.

"The network end-points are the important part again," says Rich Kilmer, chief technology officer at Roku Technologies, which has licensed its P2P technology to Hewlett-Packard and 3Com. "Peer-to-peer is about leveraging the latent power in your PC."

Thats why Intel, one of the earliest and most active proponents of the concept, is so wild about P2P. "This moves the center of the focus of computing back toward the client," Knighten says.

Microsoft, too, has been tracking the growing P2P community and plans to add new P2P features to the Windows operating system. "Windows is already the platform of choice for P2P apps because of its capabilities and ubiquity, and we intend to add functionality to make it better," says David Stutz, the program manager who is leading Microsofts peer-to-peer initiatives.

Of course, P2P could turn out to be just a huge hairball of hype, a latter-day version of so-called push technology, which automatically "pushed" information down to your computer. Like P2P, push received an enormous amount of attention and investment — some soothsayers predicted it would replace the Web — only to largely wither away. Theres another parallel: P2P applications tend to consume lots of bandwidth, one of the main reasons push fell from favor. And P2P developers still need to fully tackle security, among other infrastructure components. Intels Knighten predicts that as soon as peer-to-peer really catches on, someone will figure out how to hack it. "Im sure there will be something that makes the headlines and makes people nervous" about P2P, he says.

Despite the caveats, many industry watchers are convinced the Net will be awash in P2P apps in the coming year. "A hive of bees is smarter than any single bee," says John Sculley, partner at New York investment firm Sculley Brothers and former chief executive of Apple Computer. "We are at the edge of some incredible things."