Napster model could help in the search for hard-to-find files

Shawn P. McCarthy

The sprawling online music site and search service built by Napster Inc. may not survive legal challenges, but its real significance lies in its remarkable peer-to-peer search technology.

The concept could apply to many types of computer files and user communities, such as the vast collection of government data stored in bits and pieces on thousands of PCs.

A conventional search engine spider visits a Web page, copies the text to extract a description and then attempts to classify the page in some automated fashion. It also copies the links on the page, follows them and starts the process again. But in most cases, the spider visits only Web servers, not client computers.

Users must go to the search engine site to benefit from its directory and services. Several huge portals have been built around this concept, and their user communities are limited by what their search engines have found.

Peer-to-peer systems take a different approach. Their community builds itself as people participate.

In Napster's case, those who want to participate must download an application and designate a special directory for storing downloaded .mp3 files. They can choose whether to open that directory and let other people look in it and make their own copies of what's stored there. keeps track of what files are in whose directories. If I want a copy of a song by Sting or U2, Napster knows that a copy is available, say, on a college student's computer in central Florida. It even helps me connect to copy it.

The client machine of any Napster user essentially becomes a limited file server for whatever period the user stays connected to the Internet.

Bye, bye, sniff

The defect in the Napster model is that it encourages and facilitates illegal music copying. That's why it will likely be shut down. I don't disagree with the decision, but I'll miss Napster when it goes away.

Meanwhile, an open-source project called Gnutella, at, is taking some of Napster's traffic. So is

Now think of people other than musicians who want to share their creations for free. The Napster model could be applied to, say, computer-aided design files. A machine parts designer could look at the hard drives of other designers worldwide for a needed part or a design that could be modified quickly.

An object programmer could find all the Common Object Request Broker Architecture objects available on a peer-to-peer network.

The OpenNap Project is one effort to set up such peer-to-peer communities for multiple file types. Visit the group at

In the government, think of the communities that could be built around resources such as the Census Bureau's Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing system, at TIGER's huge set of geographic coordinates could be plugged into mapping services and other applications. If someone viewing TIGER data wanted to compare it with, say, recent soil studies for a particular area, wouldn't it be nice if the studies were available from a PC hard drive somewhere via a peer-to-peer search?

How about topographic data? Satellite photos? Global Positioning System coordinates? There are users who have all that data, but no one has yet built an extensive Napster-like community around it. Membership could be as open or closed as necessary, based on the community's needs.

In the case of Napster, a central resource coordinates the file searches and transfers. But in open models such as Gnutella's decentralized administration, enforcement of copyright issues becomes difficult.

In short, the peer-to-peer genie is out of the bottle.

Napster-like products will come and go, but file sharing via connected communities that bypass traditional mediators will flourish. In fact, it can't be stopped.

To learn more, visit some of these evolving peer-to-peer services:

•'Hotline at

•'IMesh at

•'FileSwap at

•'Scour at

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at [email protected].


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