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Bad Packets: Business P2P: Warmed-over groupware

Is peer to peer (P2P) a viable business concept? Shared files and collaborative services may not be enough to keep the trend alive in today's economy.

E-mail Wes Simonds
Why isn't the P2P trend dead yet? Market realities continue to sneak up behind P2P with a hideous smirk and a lead pipe, but P2P somehow continues to escape.

Analysts vary in their opinion of the P2P business case. I don't. I've always thought it's lame and can't last. It has, however, clearly lasted much longer than I thought it would.

I suppose it would be best to begin by defining some terms. Peer to peer services are about as old as computers, and even in the modern era have been around forever -- witness the inclusion of personal file sharing in Mac OS 7 circa 1990 -- but the concept of P2P as a trendy bandwagon with a highly desirable jump factor is a direct consequence of the unparalleled consumer success of Napster.

But the truth is that Napster was a freak circumstance of supply and demand. Users craved pirated MP3 files, but because they were pirated, there simply could not be a central location to find them. Thus their unpredictably random distribution across thousands of personal hard drives inevitably gave rise to a hack designed to find and offer them globally across the Internet.

Ta-da! In this way was born the biggest networking fad of the last two years.

But this model of content sharing is not particularly applicable as a business model. Who really has files they need to distribute in this way?

All businesses have mission-critical data, but that's inarguably best stored and archived centrally via servers. All businesses also have user-centric, non-mission-critical data (including pirated MP3 files) floating around on personal drives, but it's hard to imagine why businesses should pay for software designed to share it.

In fact, the opposite logic applies. As all too many net admins discovered in the 1999-2000 era, peered sharing of non-mission-critical files (usually for non-business purposes) is a drag on the LAN and consumes business bandwidth like a devouring flame. And in today's economy, it seems unlikely that precious cash is going to be allocated to anything that carries the stigma of questionable utility.

So it seems to me that business P2P, if it's going to go anywhere, isn't really likely to be solely about data sharing; it's very probably going to have to transcend its Napster heritage and venture into choicer pastures.

What's left? Well, P2P has also come to mean, in today's era of economically desperate market-speak, such diverse concepts as instant messaging and distributed processing, and we've seen such tech goliaths as Sun and Intel sponsor P2P with their own unique initiatives.

That Sun should have done so is slightly odd given the company's focus on servers, but I suppose their perennial and remarkably flexible slogan, "The network is the computer," which could arguably mean anything, could be considered a P2P motto too. (Possible future Sun slogans: "The USB port is the graphical interface." "The SPARC microprocessor is the cathode ray tube." "The monitor cable is the JPG decompression algorithm.")

The latest booster shot in the arm of the anemic P2P industry is Microsoft's decision to pump $51 million into the coffers of Groove Networks, founded by Ray Ozzie. According to their web site, Groove's "unique software platform enables organizations to extend critical business processes, projects and meetings across time, space and organizational boundaries."

Where have I heard this before? To me, it sounds like a mystical rephrasing of the great marketing craze of 1996, groupware, which was by no coincidence also spearheaded by Ozzie, the lead engineer for Lotus Notes.

Notes, of course, was a tremendous smash hit and sold seventeen jillion copies -- virtually all of which users grumble about having to use even today. I've logged thousands of hours as an IT guy and Notes has to be among the most unpopular packages I've ever supported.

Here's a thought: someone has actually conceived and purchased the domain (No, it wasn't me.) If Ozzie wants Groove to escape a similar fate, I suggest he give businesses a truly innovative reason to buy.

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