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Pandora’s Box

Napster. Napster. Napster. You‘re probably sick of hearing about the latest hot software and how much easier it makes it to share MP3 online music files. And about how that’s why the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is suing the San Mateo, California, company. And about how the software has been choking up college servers, so admins are banning it, spurring student protests. (Uh, what ever happened to affirmative action and tuition hikes?)

But if you‘re sick of hearing about Napster, that’s unfortunate. Because what‘s missing in the Great Satan (the RIAA) vs. Exalted Liberator (anyone who’s ever paid 15 bucks for a CD) Napster debate is that the technology is a computing breakthrough on the level of the World Wide Web. Someone at the Human Genome Project is using Napster technology, and it‘s not because he has a thing for Fiona Apple. Dr. Lincoln Stein, part of the project at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, is exploring ”how to use Napster-style automated resource discovery to enable scientists to publish their discoveries in the genome.“ The reason Stein and other experts are so excited is that Napster turns the prevailing computer technology of client-server on its side. (If you already know client-server, skip the next two paragraphs.)

What makes the World Wide Web work, ditto your office’s LAN (local area network), is client-server computing. Your desktop computer (called, in this context, the client) is networked to a larger computer (the server). Generally, in most offices, you‘ll be able to run your word-processing or spreadsheet programs at your own computer, but you must go on the network in order to print or e-mail. The usual configuration looks like the spokes of a wheel, with the server as the hub, and the PCs at the end of the spokes. Rarely, there is what’s called a ”peer-to-peer“ configuration, where all PCs are linked together, and then hooked up to the server. Keep that term in mind.

The World Wide Web is a giant client-server system. You at your PC (or Mac, forgive me) log on to the Internet (the network) and, through it, to a favorite site. The site‘s computer (a server) sends the information you requested back to you. Here’s the important part: Even if you e-mail someone, you‘re still going through a server -- there’s no direct contact between your computer and someone else‘s computer. If you want an MP3, you go to a site like MP3.com, request a song, and the site’s server sends it to your computer.

(Welcome back, networking geeks. You‘re gonna love this part.) What makes Napster a programming breakthrough, rather than merely a bonanza for intellectual-property attorneys, is that it is the first widespread use of a peer-to-peer system on the World Wide Web. You download and install the Napster software, which runs on your client. Once you’re connected, the software indexes the MP3s you‘ve got on your hard drive, then connects to the Napster server and makes your tracks available to anybody who’s hooked up at the time -- from your hard drive, not from the Napster server. Your computer is directly linked to someone else‘s computer, without a server in between. That is why it only works for as long as you’re connected, and why it‘s great with ”always on“ broadband systems, and a pain with a dial-up connection. Napster allows very fat clients, today’s superfast, application-stuffed PCs, to interact in a peer-to-peer climate.

”It‘s a true hybrid computing environment,“ says Tristan Louis, CEO of Movable Media, who has discussed Napster in his influential online newsletter, TNL.NET (www.tnl.netnewsletter). ” For the first time since the creation of the Web,“ Louis wrote, ”you have an application that allows for the widespread distribution of files across a network. It could allow for a new set of cooperative tools in corporate environments. What if I could work on a presentation and immediately share it with other people in my office?“

According to Eddie Kessler, V.P. of engineering at Napster, Napster creator and company founder Shawn Fanning had cooperative work tools in mind from the start. ”Shawn was enamored with the distributed nature of the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) peer-to-peer communication paradigm that allows for chat and file sharing, but which [lacks] the effective indexed search capabilities of a Web search engine,“ says Kessler.

So stop thinking of Napster as a way to score a dubiously legal copy of ”Charm Attack“ and realize that the product of then--college freshman Fanning could be one of the best networking innovations in years. Napster has made it easier by orders of magnitude to transfer entire files from one computer to another. Stein explains why:

”We’ve been stuck in a client-server paradigm for many, many years. People who had stuff to share had to learn arcane knowledge, like FTP, static IP addresses -- there were a lot of technical hurdles. The beauty of this system is, it does automatic resource discovery. Napster publishes the route to the user‘s information. Not just the IP address, which may change, but the port.“ (IP addresses are the unique identifiers of the computer you wish to connect with; port numbers are used to identify services within the computers, such as mail.) ”The client, when it connects, tells the server what IP address and port number the music can be downloaded from. Both numbers may change from session to session, and the port number may change during a session in order to work around firewall blocks and the like. This is very different from conventional Web and FTP servers, in which you have to know the IP address and port numbers in advance.“

 

And Napster is just for starters. A couple of weeks ago, a similar piece of software called Gnutella was released. Written by the programmers who founded Nullsoft, the company that created the Winamp MP3 player, it set off a huge sensation on the Net. Unfortunately, Nullsoft had been acquired by AOL months before, and AOL was a trifle upset that principals in one of its acquired companies had just hacked together a little copyright-busting program. Well, that’s one theory; the other is that AOL had sanctioned the project all along, and got cold -- hell, frostbitten -- feet once it set about merging with copyright colossus Time Warner. Within 24 hours, AOL had demanded and gotten Nullsoft to remove Gnutella code from its Web site.

Gnutella does Napster one better by enabling peer-to-peer sharing of nearly every kind of file, not just MP3s. ”It does executables, it does zip files, it does video files, audio files, any kind of files -- and you can add your own extensions within the client,“ says Louis, who got a look at the code before AOL clamped down.

Gnutella solved another problem with Napster, according to Stein: ”The major innovation is that it allows servers to chain to each other and share information about what each one has got. This removes one of the Napster problems, which is that each server becomes a bottleneck.“ Concurs Louis, ”Gnutella takes the Napster concept and removes the server from it -- you have more of a decentralized Napster.“

At the moment, according to Louis, Gnutella also lacks something essential: a good password-protection system so that you can create private groups, essential in a competitive, trade-secret-stealing corporate environment. Not to worry. As you read this, some open-sourcer is probably writing such a system.

”With a tool like Gnutella, my hard drive can become a portion of a larger hard drive,“ says Louis. ”I could have a marketing hard drive, a finance hard drive, an HR [human- resources] hard drive of which only a portion would be sitting on my computer. Compare this to current corporate client-server systems where you have to deliberately save a file to the corporate server -- and to your own hard drive. Forget to save it to one or the other, and you‘ll be stuck without your work or somebody else’s later revision. With a a Gnutella-like system, you‘d continually have the most updated versions, without having to remember to separately save them.“

The broader implications of Gnutella are not lost on Napster. Although Kessler defends the server-based system (”We plan to continue focusing on a server-based approach. Other serverless designs can’t handle large numbers of simultaneous users“), he adds that the company always had bigger ambitions for the product. ”Collaborative communities of users sharing content is exactly what we‘re about. Extending our approach to distributed, collaborative work groups is a possible future direction for Napster,“ Kessler says. And Napster will be adding support for Microsoft’s Windows Media Format files in its next release, which should facilitate the development of extensions, Kessler explains.

AOL did not move fast enough to quash the sensation over Gnutella. ”They‘ve opened Pandora’s box,“ says Louis. Thousands heard about it on the geek must-read Slashdot Web site, which funneled 10,000 download requests to Gnutella the first morning, causing the software‘s creators to beg off the site. Louis says that at one point he was connected to 828 hosts running Gnutella, with 182,889 files already offering a wide selection of software, music and movies, including the newly released Pitch Black and Erin Brockovich, along with more obvious titles, such as The Matrix, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the almost redundant Hackers. That’s .9 terabyte of software -- one week after Gnutella was announced, and just as quickly yanked.

 

A few Century City lawyers are undoubtedly fanning themselves with this paper. But farsighted executives like Louis are seeing a whole new world: ”Gnutella could potentially allow you to massively distribute files across a large network of people because it lets you both download and stream.“ Louis also suggests that Gnutella technology could be the backbone of the next generation of search engines: ”Not only would it index the pages for the server administrator, but it could also report back to a mainstream search engine. With a service a la Gnutella, you could have every Web site call back the search-engine directory to post the changes they had.“ In fact, another piece of Napster-like software, Imesh (www.imesh.com), has already set out to create a new search structure.

But enough already with the Napster accolades: Remember, the software helps people share files by scanning their hard drives -- doesn‘t anyone find that pros-pect scary?

”Technically, it wouldn’t be that hard to open up a hole in Napster to find stuff that is not scanned,“ warns Louis. Kessler reassures users that ”Napster has taken extreme measures to prevent access to any files on our users‘ computers other than the audio files our users have chosen to share. Our client verifies that only valid MP3 files are shared, and will only transmit those valid files.“ All we can say is, we hope so. Because we’re not just talking your basic asshole virus writer. Microsoft already went through a scandal over its Web site‘s ”helpful“ detection of every program on your system. One nightmare scenario would have copyright holders rooting around your hard drive, disabling stuff that in their opinion you weren’t supposed to have in the first place. So much for that little Fourth Amendment thing.

Perhaps the biggest downside of NapsterGnutella-like technologies is the very freedom from copyright they confer. Never mind that those of us in the ”content business“ would like to get paid. We have all grown used to a Web in which you can do hours and hours of free research. The existence of NapsterGnutella could spur not only lawsuits, but also technological solutions to the problem of unauthorized copying. Combine that with the Time Warner--AOL merger, and we may be seeing the start of the countdown to the day when you can no longer cut and paste text from your browser or print out articles for free, let alone download music and video. To give only one example, a new product called Clever Content Server allows graphic images to be seen only through its own viewer -- and the viewer disallows screen captures and the ”save as“ feature on your browser. It‘s a question of balance: Professional artists deserve not to have their work ”borrowed“ by other sites -- but what about innocent users, like school kids preparing reports?

So, are we looking at Pandora or Prometheus? Pandora unleashed evil and was left with hope. Prometheus gave the world fire and spent eternity having his liver picked at by an eagle. If NapsterGnutella are used wisely, with respect for copyright, we may see a golden age of collaboration. If not, then enjoy the Internet while you still can.

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