Is there a place in the enterprise for a legal file-sharing application using peer-to-peer technology?
Three former America Online Inc. executives with a history of entrepreneurial success believe they have the answer with Grouper, an encrypted P2P network that integrates file sharing, instant messaging and multimedia streaming.Josh Felser, who hit pay dirt with the $320 million sale of Spinner.com to AOL in 1999, is one of the key people behind the Mill Valley, Calif.-based Grouper, the company he created with former AOL colleagues Dave Samuel and Mike Sitrin.
“Our technology turns the computer into a private server that allows you to share files securely in a small, invite-only group,” Felser said in an interview with eWEEK.com. Each group becomes an encrypted peer-to-peer network that allows one-click access to browse and download files.
Currently in beta, Grouper limits private networks to 30 members. While file sharing is a key feature in the application, there is no uploading/downloading of music, Felser explained, citing the legal issues associated with sharing of copyrighted works.
By limiting music sharing to streams in small groups, Felser said Grouper simply enables “private performances,” which is protected by U.S. Copyright Law.
“Were not a public file-sharing network. What we offer is a way to connect to hard drives within a group in a safe, encrypted environment,” he said.
During the stealth beta, Grouper is free and being marketed as a consumer application. But, in Felsers mind, the application will evolve into a workplace collaboration tool for the SMB (small and medium-size business) segment.
“Think of it as a simplified collaboration tool similar to Groove,” he said, referring to the high-end enterprise software sold by Groove Networks. “Weve been approached by lots of companies who see this as an accessible way to connect and share larger files in an encrypted environment.”
“Groove is complex and more of an app for larger enterprises. Were aiming for the smaller workgroups,” Felser added.
Grouper will also be marketed as a remote access tool for business use, much like the Go2MyPC utility sold by Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Citrix Online.
Felser envisions a premium version of Grouper offering remote access to e-mails, desktop folders, applications and file transfers from anywhere.
Grouper can also be used as a tool for universities where students can form study groups to share notes and collaborate on projects. It could also be embraced by professors to distribute course material or post audio or video lectures.
Felser said plans are also in place to offer custom versions for university network administrators to allow students to legally share personal files amongst themselves. Running Grouper through university networks can save Internet bandwidth costs because file transfers are done between machines on the local network (unlike other P2P networks).
Felser, who served as vice president and general manager of AOLs Spinner, WinAmp and Shoutcast music brands, believes the invite-only element separates Grouper from others in the space.
Mercora, the peer-to-peer radio network launched by former McAfee Chief Executive Srivats Sampath, also combines IM and image-sharing capabilities, but that service is public.
Businesses have generally frowned on peer-to-peer usage because of the security implications, a potential stumbling block for widespread adoption of Grouper. The Skype P2P VoIP client, for instance, has been banned from some workplaces because of the data leakage risk.
However, Felser said Groupers emphasis on being a small, private, encrypted network minimizes the risk. “Were a heck of a lot safer to the business because we target very small groups of people who already know and trust each other. And we have a very firm anti-spyware policy. Well never add spyware or adware of any kind.”
Grouper, which launched with $1 million in angel seed funding, expects to make money from a feature-rich premium version for power users and SMBs.
Felser said rich media advertising will be embedded into the free version, and e-commerce tie-ins with online music stores and photo printing services will also offer business opportunities.
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