The Dracula of the Internet, Napster Inc., may have a stake in its heart. But it's not the last bandwidth-sucker cable operators will face when it comes to peer-to-peer (P2P) applications or services.
In fact, even as Napster-like pirate services such as Gnutella and Morpheus crop up, legitimate and legal P2P apps are also becoming prevalent.
Although Napster was universally decried for violating content-creators' copyrights, it did prove that P2P is a viable network model. Millions of users, directed by a central computer, exchanged files with each other in a seamless, easy-to-use manner.
If only it were legal.
Yet P2P is far from dead. Companies such as CenterSpan Communications Corp., GameSpy Industries and Groove Networks have developed P2P applications for transferring video files, competing in multiplayer games and enabling co-workers to share files and collaborate on business projects.
CenterSpan has introduced Scour Exchange, which it purchased late last year after the popular music-and-video file-swapping service declared bankruptcy. Scour was the target of copyright-infringement lawsuits from movie and music producers.
The resurrected Scour Exchange returned in March with the launch of a redesigned beta service that harnesses CenterSpan's secure and legal distribution technology to serve up music and video files. Its beta version has been released in advance of the launch of a fee-based service.
CenterSpan's new service is a "hybrid" P2P network, designed to minimize the cost of distribution, according to vice president of engineering Bob Dietrich. He said a catalog of video files are stored on the company's central server, allowing users to search through a main database for particular titles.
Users then download the files from the server. As the files begin to propagate throughout the user base, the central server collects information about where they're located and which users are online.
In time, the file transfers will take place not between the central server and the user, but between peers, as a file-seeking user is directed to the computer of a fellow subscriber who's storing it.
Intelligence programmed into the server software, including load-balancing features, determines the best available peer. That's unlike Napster, which returns a list of all peers who have a given title once a user submits his request. In this way, the cost of transferring files is distributed across the entire Internet.
"No one particular peer is overloaded," said Dietrich. "The more people that are using Scour, the less likely one particular user will be asked for a file."
Video-file sizes on the Scour server vary, ranging from commercials and trailers of a few megabytes to longer films of 200 megabytes.
"A large number of our customers are using broadband [connections], which makes it less painful," said Dietrich, who estimated that at least two-thirds of Scour's users are broadband-enabled.
Eventually, as titles spread out through the network of Scour users, they will be removed from CenterSpan's servers.
Visits to the Scour Web site found music from They Might Be Giants
and Kung Fu-style, B-grade movies available during the beta program. Other content licensed for the beta includes titles from EMusic, Moonshine Music, Crush Media, Filmspeed and TVParty.com. Negotiations are underway with other music and video content providers, Dietrich said.
Yet it seems unlikely that box-office hits and top-10 songs will make it onto the Scour network, at least in the short-term. The skittish music and film industry moves gingerly at best into the world of digital distribution.
But for content providers, Scour's network allows titles in their catalogs that would never appear in video stores to be made available to the public and generate revenue, Dietrich insisted. The beta content is protected using digital rights-management technology from Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media Player. The files, according to Dietrich, are encrypted and tamper-proof. Content creators can also more tightly control their digital quality — a departure from the spotty nature of pirated P2P network files.
CenterSpan is tinkering with a tiered subscription model that would offer basic and premium service levels, said vice president of marketing Andy Mullinger. Premium tiers would afford access to higher-quality content.
CenterSpan is also in discussions with record labels about pricing, Mullinger said, adding that $19-$20 per month is considered the high end of its subscription-price model.
The new Scour didn't sit well with the folks at Slyway.com, a review site of pirate P2P networks.
"We are looking into a very dark glimpse of corporate-controlled media," complained Slyway. Certainly, retro TV clips and movie trailers aren't as juicy as original movies or videos — but they're legal, and CenterSpan promises more compelling content in the future.
Perhaps the audience most ripe for legit P2P entertainment is the rabid online, multiplayer gaming community.
"Gaming was the original P2P application," said GameSpy CEO Mark Surfas. Gamers have long used local-area networks to transfer the gaming data related to their online battles. With the advent of the Internet and high-speed connections, that network has been extended.
To a large degree, copyright issues are nonexistent, as each gaming participant in a multiplayer environment must have their own copy of the title, which — theoretically, at least — they had to purchase.
Through a series of alliances and acquisitions, GameSpy has emerged as a major P2P facilitator in the gaming world. GameSpy.net is a global gaming infrastructure composed of 55 sites with 6 million visitors per month that provides back-end services and toolkits to game developers, according to Surfas.
GameSpy Arcade, launched last November, "is the standard environment for playing retail games online," said Surfas. Users install the Arcade software by visiting GameSpy's site. It's also often available on game developers' CD-ROMs, purchased at retail.
Prospective players of a specific game visit the GameSpy Arcade site and cruise the chat rooms to find opponents. Once all participants have agreed to commence, they all launch their software.
Generally, one person serves as the host, or server, to process the actions of the other players.
Adding to the experience is Arcade's voice-chat subsystem, which allows up to 32 people to talk in P2P fashion using a "tree-spanning technology" that employs an algorithm to determine which player has the best Internet connection latencies and can act as the server to send out messages to the group.
Arcade users click on a chat icon and speak into their microphones to talk to one another. In this way, two members of a squadron in a flight-simulator game, for instance, can plot strategy with each other, warn of impending danger or taunt the competition.
The voice-over-IP technology is based on the "Roger Wilco" application that GameSpy purchased from HearMe last year. A proprietary instant-messaging service also lets players communicate via text messages.
Closer to the world of cable, Colin Bylund, director of developer software and support for set-top software maker PowerTV Inc., noted that the industry "will see these kinds of (P2P) apps in the not-too-distant future."
Bylund said he wasn't at liberty to discuss details of specific applications PowerTV and its developers are working on. But he did say that the PowerTV platform would include "a relatively robust catalog of titles from the largest names in the gaming world."
Applications can be as simple as ones that enable chess clients to pass messages back and forth to describe moves or complex enough to handle multiplayer action games. At last year's Western Show, game developers Boxerjam, Infogames Entertainment, nGame and ZAQ all demonstrated titles on the PowerTV platform.
For years, however, P2P applications have been the bogeymen for cable network engineers overseeing best-effort, shared-bandwidth networks.
"From a business standpoint, the demonstrated desire for Napster has sent us a signal that there may be an opportunity to more effectively realize direct revenue" from P2P apps, said one top MSO executive who requested anonymity. "In general, we have to find some way of deriving fair-market value for the use of that bandwidth," the exec said.
A percentage of broadband users will continue to turn to pirate P2P networks or find and download DVD-formatted movies on Usenet forums — and thereby hog bandwidth. But the cable network's evolution from best-effort Internet delivery to quality-of-service, Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 1.1-based networks may give operators the ability to monetize P2P.
If they can, the P2P monster may turn out to be a very welcome friend.