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Tech 101 | PC Focus

Napster Idea Goes Beyond Free Music

February 22, 2001|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | larry.magid@latimes.com

Regardless of Napster's ultimate fate, the fundamental concept behind the music-swapping service is likely to remain viable for the foreseeable future. That's because the technology that fuels Napster does more than help people get free music. It's an example of so-called peer-to-peer technology that harnesses the power of thousands of PCs to deliver goods and services via the Internet.

Tempting as it might be to dismiss peer-to-peer file sharing as a tool for pirates trying to rip off other people's intellectual property, the technology has far more uses. It turns out to be a promising way to distribute processing power and file storage across many machines rather than centralizing it on a single cluster of servers.

In Napster's case, the goods transferred are MP3 files that reside not on servers owned by Napster but on computers located in homes, offices and universities around the world. But it can also be used to share and distribute documents, graphics, video files, recipes, corporate databases and scientific research.

When a Napster user downloads a piece of music, that song actually comes from someone else's PC connected to the Internet and running the Napster client software. In fact, the only thing Napster does, aside from distribute the Napster client software, is provide a catalog of files that helps users find files on one another's machines.

Although Napster's centralized catalog makes the service more efficient and easier to use, it's not an essential ingredient in a peer-to-peer network. Gnutella, another file-sharing technology, operates on a pure peer-to-peer basis.

Gnutella is not a company or a Web site or even a particular piece of software. It's a protocol that makes it possible for software to exchange information about files on different computers much the same way e-mail protocols enable various e-mail programs to exchange messages.

Unlike Napster, Gnutella isn't limited to MP3 music files. The technology can be used to share any type of file. It also can be used to locate and transfer images, word-processing documents, recipes, even video clips.

Xdegrees, a Silicon Valley start-up, is developing tools that enable companies to build peer-to-peer networks that not only share files but also manage the flow of data between machines. The idea, according to Chief Executive Michael Tanne, is for network applications to "become unhinged from servers."

This could lower the cost and increase the reliability of network applications that, today, operate primarily on centralized servers not unlike the old-time sharing applications from the mainframe days of the 1960s and '70s. In other words, it will be possible someday to utilize the power of many PCs rather than a handful of centralized servers--which could lead to almost unlimited computing power.

The SETI@home project (http://setiathome.berkeley.edu) is an example of peer-to-peer technology being used for scientific research. The project, headquartered at UC Berkeley, uses hundreds of thousands of personal computers throughout the world in its "search for extraterrestrial intelligence."

SETI scientists search through billions of radio frequencies across the universe by using the processing power of other people's home PCs to analyze data when not used. During those idle periods, the program downloads blocks of data from the Internet and analyzes the data in search of orderly patterns that could indicate extraterrestrial activity.

Regardless of whether SETI ever uncovers intelligent life on another planet, it is being heralded as an intelligent use of otherwise idle computing power. The Windows version consists of a 775-kilobyte file that is very easy to install and use.

One caveat: SETI's Web site requests users in California to shut off their computers during Stage 2 and Stage 3 emergency alerts. Most of us have a PC that can decentralize computing power, but few of us have our own power plants.

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Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.

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