Start-Ups Target Data-Sharing Markets

November 3, 2000

NEWS BRIEFS

Boston, MASS. — The controversial Napster music-sharing program may live or die, depending on the conclusions of a federal judge. But even as Napster remains entangled in its bitter legal wrangle with the music recording industry, the underlying concept of peer-to-peer networking software remains as fashionable as ever.

In a peer-to-peer system, individual computers share data over a network directly, without the need of a centralized server.

Napster let people download music files – legally or illegally – by connecting to the particular machine where the file was stored, rather than a central Web site. But the concept can be applied to all manner of data. Last week, Ray Ozzie, famed creator of the Lotus Notes groupware program, showed off his new peer-to-peer groupware client, Groove.

The software lets teams of people share information directly between individual computers. And there are plenty of other p-to-p start-ups waiting in the wings, targeting a variety of data-sharing markets. For instance, Lightshare Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., is putting the finishing touches on a peer-to-peer system for Internet retailing. “Instead of setting up a Web site or buying servers … you can leverage your existing hard drive, your existing infrastructure, and start selling through that,” says CEO Clarence Kwan.

When Lightshare unveils its product in December, would-be retailers will download a small client that plugs into the user’s Web browser. To sell something, the retailer opens a Web page and enters information, such as prices, quantities, and descriptions. Then the retailer just leaves the computer running and connected to the Internet. Shoppers simply go to the Lightshare Web site and run a search. The site features an index of Lightshare members with the right product to sell, just as the Napster Web site contains an index of members with Led Zeppelin songs to trade. If a Lightshare member has the right product on file, the system connects the buyer and seller directly.

Pointera, also based in Mountain View, Calif., is applying the same concept to help businesses exchange large data files with clients and customers. For instance, an architecture firm could use Pointera to share complex technical drawings with a construction company. Pointera users run software that indexes those files available for sharing, and relays the information to the Pointera Web site. If someone at the construction company needs to look up the architect’s drawings, Pointera directs him to the particular computer where those drawings are stored. The visitor can only see files that have been approved for sharing; all other data on the machine’s hard drive is off limits.

Pointera is currently under test and is supposed to launch in the next couple of months. Perhaps the most intriguing peer-to-peer plan is a variation on the popular SETIHome service, which uses thousands of computers scattered across the Internet to search for life on other worlds.

Popular Power Inc. of San Francisco has created peer-to-peer software that lets computer users collaborate on massive scientific projects. “We’re aggregating all the idle resources on the Internet and reselling them to businesses,” says the company’s chief technology officer Nelson Minar. Computer users download a piece of client software that runs in the background, whenever the computer has some spare processing cycles. The client automatically shares data with other machines on the network, turning thousands of PCs into a single giant supercomputer.

Right now, the Popular Power system is being used by an influenza researcher to create models of the human immune system. It’s a charitable venture and a good test of the system. But Minar eventually plans to offer Popular Power computing to businesses that need massive number-crunching resources. Companies will pay Popular Power for access to the spare horsepower of its members’ computers. In turn, the members will receive a small payment – between $5 and $15 a month, probably payable as a discount on the users’ monthly Internet bill.

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