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harnessing the power of disruptive technologies

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue May, May 1 - May 31, 2001 | BY James F. Doyle 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Reviewed By James F. Doyle

How the Napsters of the future will affect the Internet status quo. Andy Oram, Editor
O'Reilly and Associates, Publisher 2001

The recent Napster brouhaha has certainly made us all aware of the Internet as a free, and therefore possibly illegal, source of music CDs. All it takes is a Read-Write CD drive and you can get on the Net and start building your CD library by downloading music files directly from the computer files of other Napster users. Unfortunately, most news accounts of the Napster story focused attention on the copyright issues, stressing the potential for ripping off musical artists and their publishers. The real story was the way Napster had transformed Internet users from passive recipients into active suppliers of information services.

Napster is but one manifestation of a quietly growing communication technology commonly referred to as peer-to-peer networking. In peer-to-peer networks end users work as equal partners in projects that promote the shared usage of files, computing time and other information resources. This technology distributes responsibility and therefore control of network protocols and resources in ways that promise dramatic changes in Internet usage. Anyone interested in getting a handle on the potentially revolutionary peer-to-peer technology beginning to take shape would be well advised to read the new book on the subject edited by Andy Oram and published by O'Reilly and Associates, Inc. The book is an impressive assemblage of articles written by current leaders in the field of distributed systems designed for Internet usage. Interestingly, publisher Tim O'Reilly contributed a chapter in the book in which he describes public perception issues related to peer-to-peer developments.

What can the reader expect to find in this book? First there is an introductory section that places peer-to-peer networking in its historical context and presents the reasons why this technology can be expected to achieve an expanded, if not dominant, Internet presence. Next there is a series of chapters each examining a promising peer-to-peer system currently operating or under development for operation on the Internet. Some of the systems dealt with are: Napster, Gnutella, Freenet, Red Rover and Publius. Each system is reviewed by an expert selected for his familiarity with the system. The reviews are generally excellent, although without a uniform framework that would have allowed a systematic comparison across systems.

The remaining chapters in the book deal with the several critical system features, which must be successful addressed by peer-to-peer technology in the course of its future real-life evolution. The authors of these chapters are enthusiastic proponents of the promise and benefits of peer-to-peer projects, and they wrote these chapters with an evident regard that peer-to-peer developments proceed with due attention to the problems and pitfalls that could afflict the technology and cause its failure. They show particular concern that prospective user communities not be discouraged from implementing projects because of concerns about the security and accountability of any technology that requires them to share their own file and data space with other users. They write forthrightly about the fact that there are serious problems yet to be resolved, some technical and others societal. For instance, how do we keep these systems from breaking down when their very popularity cause problems of scale? And how can trust among users be guaranteed in projects where privacy, anonymity, security, and authentication are all matters of concern?

The subtitle of this book is interesting for its admission that peer-to-peer technology is potentially disruptive. Obviously this reflects the authors' beliefs that peer-to-peer technology is destined to change many aspects of the Internet status quo. Should such change be called disruptive in a pejorative sense? After all, the Internet itself has been an immensely disruptive force in our business and personal lives. What really makes peer-to-peer technology interesting is its potential inevitability. If it has the promise and benefits these authors clearly believe it does, then perhaps the only disruption will be that caused by those resisting its inevitability. So in the case of Napster, we might say that the music industry should rethink how to accommodate the new distribution systems Napster has revealed and still protect copyrights.

This O'Reilly publication recommends itself to both the general reader who may have some interest in the future of the Internet and to leaders in business, government, medicine, education, entertainment, communication and other communities with common information interests. Because the book is more explorative than definitive, it may have lesser appeal for technical developers and managers. For them, a better resource might be the O'Reilly sponsored website:


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