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  • The Economist

Profit from Peer-to-Peer

Despite Napster's travails, some fledgling firms are out to sell the idea of peer-to-peer computing to large enterprises. They promise to use the computing architecture to empower workers, unleash their creativity and solve communication problems.

Bonnie Nardi, an anthropologist at Hewlett-Packard in San Jose, California, who has studied the way people work today, has identified the rise of ad hoc networks as one of the most fundamental innovations in the workforce in recent years. These networks, which Ms Nardi calls “intensional networks”, because of their intentional nature and inherent tension with other structures, have become a significant extension of work — and, increasingly, of the corporation itself. In turn, such self-managed messaging systems as ICQ and other peer-to-peer tools for collaboration then become the centre point of such networks, allowing users to contact peers freely, easily, and on their own terms.

Preliminary case studies of peer-to-peer applications confirm such trends in the business world. For example, United Technologies of Hartford, Connecticut, has used Oculus’s interaction system to tie its engineering and design systems together, linking numerous databases and allowing its disparate design and development teams to communicate better. In the process, the system reduced the flow of wrong or out-dated information among the design teams, saving millions of dollars. In a similar manner, Ford Motor Company of Dearborn, Michigan, has used the Oculus system to speed up its evaluation of design changes needed for improving fuel efficiency. The ability to link information across all of its applications and systems has allowed Ford to perform its design iterations much faster, saving the company anywhere from $5m to $15m per vehicle design programme.

Does all this mark the death of the corporate server? Far from it. Computer scientists note that, in the commercial world, peer-to-peer is appropriate only for applications that require direct communication. Indeed, the server will continue to reign supreme on the company’s network for managing personnel and payrolls, enterprise planning and much more. In future, however, the server will provide higher level services instead of such menial chores as simply doling out files. After all, peer-to-peer is not a business model but a computer architecture — in short, a way of thinking. In the scramble to cash in on the P2P phenomenon, many seem to have forgotten that fact.

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