Navigating the peer-to-peer universe

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2008

A term that is often bandied about in the computer world is "peer-to-peer." Young folks are quite familiar with the technology, but even they will appear a bit flustered if I use the phrase.

Simply put, it is networking among equals. In essence, your computer is transformed from a lowly home PC to a server on the Internet.

This sounds sort of frightening, but years ago a couple of geeks put together a piece of software that turned the world of the Internet upside down - Napster. Today, most kids under the age of 16 probably never heard of it. But it was only a few years ago (1999) that this software revolutionized the way music was distributed.

Before Napster, folks scurried down to the record store to purchase CDs. Some went to But Napster allowed users to share music files with each other. Participants went to a central site to select music they desired. Napster's computers then went out into the world and found participants who were offering the music. The program then transferred the music files to your computer directly from other participants.

Such a great idea overlooked one important detail - copyright laws. Because Napster used a central site to inventory music files, the company was sued into oblivion by the recording industry. But its logo and its name had worth, and it still exists today, albeit as a legitimate distributor of tunes.

Kazaa was the next to emerge, bypassing the central site. It still exists today, but the legal twist is that since Kazaa is merely a transport software, the responsibility now lays with the participants. The recording industry has been quite vigilant in ferreting out people who download music.

The latest phenom of peer-to-peer is Skype. I use it, and it is quite fun and useful. Unlike other computer fads that I and my kids have dabbled in, Skype appears to have increasing value. In essence, it is free telephone service anywhere in the world.

I was introduced to it by a staff worker who talked to her mother in Russia. I tried it and was quite pleased, corresponding by voice and video to friends as far away as China and Singapore. I have since expanded the service to include fee-based functions such as in- and out-bound telephone service to non-Skype phone numbers. Its voice messaging service is second to none, and it includes a chat service. Since being purchased by eBay (the original owners were the same ones who designed Kazaa), it is being packaged with several other services.

BitTorrent has garnered some controversial coverage and is used for file transfers and automating software downloads. Like Kazaa and Napster, its beauty is its ability to find multiple sources for software, conservatively use bandwidth and run in the background. It is free and is gaining press because people are transferring music files and such that are protected by copyright laws. But it is simply software, and like a gun, the user is responsible if it is misused.

It's interesting technology, I encourage you to check it out.

• Eric M. Niewoehner can be reached at

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