When Shawn Fanning released the original Napster software in 1999, he didn't invent file-sharing. He just made it easier than ever before to swap songs online. That ease of use, combined with the allure of free music (and the joy of sticking it to the music industry), led tens of millions of people to install Napster before it ran afoul of the 9th Circuit.
A similar watershed moment may be coming for the BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol, whose efficiency and speed make it more suited to share large files than earlier applications like Napster and Kazaa. AllPeers, a UK-based company that uses coders in Prague, is completing work on software that will build BitTorrent file-sharing into the Firefox browser. Users will be able to share files of any kind with people on their AllPeers buddy list simply by dragging and dropping icons from one folder to another.
That's a huge leap forward not just in usability, but also concealment -- all communications on AllPeers are private and encrypted. As a consequence, it's hard to see how the entertainment industry could attack bootlegging through AllPeers; there don't seem to be any central servers, and the only users who could be monitored, IMHO, are the ones who make a public appeal for buddies and blindly accept all comers.
There's another way to look at this development, though. Unless AllPeers goes the Aimster route and conjures up a way to search for files broadly across the user base, the sharing will be on a much more limited scale. Some intellectual-property lawyers might also argue that sharing copyrighted material with a few close friends or family members is a fair use, although the music and movie industries would certainly disagree. More important, if AllPeers catches on (and works as advertised, which may not be the case), it would provide a powerful legitimate distribution channel, too. Imagine people sharing promotional songs, games with try-before-you-buy DRMs, trailers, TV pilots or movies with DRMs that allow viewers to watch the first 20 minutes for free. Communicating with buddies is already well ingrained among Internet users, as is sharing files through instant-message programs. Latching such a tool onto a browser would make it much easier for people to share the things that catch their fancy online, accelerating the viral distribution of hot properties and increasing the reach of products that appeal to niche tastes.
So much for the speculation. The creators of AllPeers, who are backed by the two of Skype's VC funders, said they would invite 50,000 more users in the next few days to test the software, roughly doubling the number of people with access to the software. The comments those users are sure to post online will give a much better idea about the software's potential -- for good or otherwise.