A Net of Their Own


The metallic green print on the black background of Guerrilla.net's home page proclaims: "An underground alternative to the wired Internet." The Web site is part of a shadowy project to create a wireless data network built by volunteers using off-the-shelf parts. The mailing address for Guerrilla.net is LOpht Heavy Industries, a secretive group of computer-security experts located in the Boston area. The contact e-mail is oblivion@sinister.com.

That might sound spooky, but Guerrilla.net, with a network covering parts of Cambridge and Boston, is hardly alone these days. A handful of community wireless networks have formed around the world, including places like San Francisco, Seattle, and London. They're wireless broadband setups that offer anyone with a radio card in a laptop fast data-transmission rates anywhere within range.

Aside from wanting a Net of their own, these pioneers hanker to log on in the coffee shop, the Laundromat, or anywhere else within the system's beaming distance. Finding a new member in a prime antenna location -- ideally, someone with an apartment in a building on a hill overlooking town -- is a major coup.

HOW LONG A LONG SHOT? Not that the phone companies are scared. Guerrilla.net's dream of an alternative Internet remains a long shot, as the number of wireless transmission stations remains quite small, with nodes numbering only in the hundreds around the country. In fact, these efforts are light-years away from a true peer-to-peer wireless transmission system.

Still, the rise of community wireless networks underscores a growing trend. Increasingly, people are bypassing traditional communications schemes and building their own networks on the fly. These new types of communications still travel largely via the Internet or phone networks. But the distance between users is clearly shrinking.

Witness the latest group of Napster clones, which have no centralized servers and rely on encrypted networks of PCs running software that randomly distribute fragments of files amongst the user base. That makes detection difficult, if not nearly impossible. "Just as workers took control of computing 20 years ago by smuggling PCs into businesses behind the backs of the people running the mainframes, workers are now taking control of networking by downloading P2P applications under the noses of the IT department," writes Clay Shirky, a P2P expert and principal at the Accelerator Group, a venture-capital firm in New York

THE NEW HAM. The concept of P2P built around self-organized networks is far from new. Ham radio networks have long used analog voice signals to communicate across tremendous distances. Academics created the first data network in the early 1970s, dubbed DARPANet, with U.S. Defense Dept. funding. Those networks, based on bits, held much greater promise for communication via voice, text, video, and other means.

Only in the second half of the 1990s, however, did this peer-to-peer (P2P) capability become possible for the public to understand and embrace. PC penetration in the U.S. and Europe finally reached a critical mass, with hundreds of millions of homes and businesses going digital. Internet connectivity, likewise, soared.

At the same time, communications got cheaper: Costs of cell phone calls have plummeted over the past decade. A price war in long-distance phone service reduced per-minute charges to previously unheard-of levels of less than 10 cents per minute.

LEVELS OF COMMUNICATION. PCs and cell phones that were finally friendly and cheap enough for mass consumption made the public eager to try ever more economical ways of communicating. Simple text messaging systems that let users conduct real-time text conversations using cell-phone networks have grown to dominate cell-phone usage in Europe. Worldwide, the use of instant messaging systems has skyrocketed.

Those systems continue to grow more sophisticated, incorporating voice options to allow users to speak to each other using the Net, plus file-sharing options that can allow them to trade music or photos. The buddy-list system used on instant-messaging systems, for instance, illustrated the power of self-organizing communication by taking the concept of a Rolodex and adding interactivity and real-time availability.

Napster and other P2P systems took this concept to another level by allowing random interested parties to look into the contents of your hard drive and select information they wanted. Music-sharing service Napster, which boasted tens of millions of users at its peak, enjoyed the fastest growth. Soon, P2P file swapping spread from songs to Hollywood films and photographs. Witness Fox's recent petitions to Internet service providers to shut down people's accounts if they use P2P systems to trade the movie Planet of the Apes.

ARTIFICIAL LIFE. Now, P2P looks poised to expand from basic functions to more exotic roles. For instance, a bevy of businesses are betting the farm on P2P for corporate environments (see BW Online, 8/1/01, "Waiting for the Killer Apps"). "We are operating in an increasingly decentralized business environment that demands more decentralized collaboration technologies," says Ray Ozzie, chief executive and founder of Groove Networks, one of the top startups in the P2P space. Ozzie and his competitors hope to do everything from augment collaboration by making it easier for individuals to connect in a secure environment to enlist fleets of idle PCs in the task of performing massive computing tasks that previously would have required a supercomputer (see BW Online, 8/1/01, "A Chat with the Master of P2P").

In the consumer realm, P2P has possibilities not only for sharing files but for sharing experiences. Decentralized gaming has already taken off with the success of Quake, the shoot 'em-up that allows players to combat each other online using servers maintained by game aficionados. For something even more exotic, talk to Todd Papaioannou, CEO of Distributed Artificial Life Inc., or DALi for short. This startup aims to simulate the Indian Ocean on millions of desktop computers and other computing devices.

The system creates a scalable architecture that simulates a little piece of the Indian Ocean on the machine of every participant. Virtual wildlife can swim from desktop to desktop of their own free will, and users can create fish and turn them loose in the virtual sea -- where they can pass through other computers, PDAs, cell phones, or any other Java-enabled device. "The artificial life is what makes our stuff interesting," explains Papaioannou. "All of the fish and creatures you see are fully autonomous digital organisms. They have high-level goal functions, behavior, and needs."

The company hopes to use this experience as a stepping stone to creating widely distributed P2P games, with content delivery and interactivity occurring directly between PCs instead of via some central computer. Users could possibly subscribe to these virtual worlds for a small monthly fee. That would be a major leap forward -- and possibly a huge business. The video-game industry today rakes in more than Hollywood in total receipts.

A NEW MINDSET. To be sure, P2P has a long way to go before it becomes truly mainstream. Opening up hard drives to millions of your best friends includes inherent security risks. Maximizing P2P also depends on common standards, so that all systems can talk to each other -- a situation that seems unlikely for at least the next few years.

Further, businesses remain reluctant to adopt P2P systems that have yet to show significant returns on investment. And consumers have gravitated towards P2P for exchanging copyrighted content files, a situation that has drawn legal fire -- and looks set to attract more. Congress, for example, just gave the Justice Dept. enough money to double the number of agents assigned to copyright enforcement.

Even the staunchest advocates of P2P don't expect it to replace older architectures that use centralized servers to route traffic and deliver content. "Just as the PC didn't supplant the need for mainframes, neither do peer systems supplant the need for centralized systems," suggests Ozzie. That said, P2P, be it in the form of text messaging, wireless data, or file sharing, is a mindset that seems to be taking hold. By Alex Salkever in New York


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