Peer Pressure

P2P networking may just be the next big thing for Internet computing. And Microsoft is its way into it with plans to incorporate P2P features in future Windows.

Peer-to-peer networking - in which a client computer functions as both a client and a server - has been heralded as the most powerful and interesting technology to hit the Internet since Marc Andreessen unleashed Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser. So it was only a matter of time before Microsoft nosed its way onto the scene.

Although it hasn't publicized its strategy for tapping into the much-hyped trend, Microsoft is closely following the peer-to-peer space. And behind the scenes, the software company has been developing new P2P technologies in several different areas.

Heading up Microsoft's P2P activities is David Stutz, technical program manager in the company's technical strategy group, who said that Microsoft is a passionate advocate of the concept. "We believe in peer-to-peer," Stutz said. "It's inevitable for anything that needs to scale beyond the size of big Web farms."

Stutz has been acting as Microsoft's liaison to the nascent Internet P2P community, and has already met with several P2P companies. "We're now going to start talking to people who are developing peer-to-peer applications to find out what they need," he said. Stutz declined to name the P2P companies that Microsoft has been collaborating with, but a spokesman at Groove Networks - the P2P company founded by Ray Ozzie - confirmed that Groove's executives have had several technical meetings with Microsoft.

In general, Microsoft plans to incorporate new P2P features into future versions of Windows, Stutz said. "It's not like we'll say, 'This is the peer-to-peer operating system,'" he said. "Peer-to-peer features have already started showing up in our products." Those projects include:

Passport: To provide Internet-based security features for P2P applications, Microsoft is considering opening its Passport user directory so that it can authenticate a wide range of P2P applications, Stutz said.

Windows user interface: Microsoft is looking at providing "helper" parts of Windows to enable P2P services in the background, Stutz said.

Universal Plug and Play: UPnP is a 2-year-old Microsoft-led initiative that lets devices locate other devices on a local network to set up peering relationships. However, UPnP isn't a workable technology for P2P applications that communicate over the Internet. "You need additional protocols to gracefully go from the conference room to the scale of the Internet," Stutz said. "This area is central to the peer-to-peer computing model."

Simple Object Access Protocol: SOAP, a World Wide Web Consortium specification based on eXtensible Markup Language, lets computers exchange structured information in a decentralized, P2P fashion.

Stutz said that Microsoft has long provided P2P technologies in various incarnations, starting with the file sharing and printer sharing features that have been embedded into Windows for years. Other Microsoft applications operate in a P2P fashion, sending information directly from one computer to another. In addition, Microsoft Office 10 will incorporate MSN Messenger Service for person-to-person collaboration.

Some believe Microsoft is content to passively observe the landscape, waiting until the P2P world has evolved sufficiently before fully jumping in.

"I don't think Microsoft cares about 'providing leadership' so much as becoming a player over time," said Clay Shirky, partner at investment firm Accelerator Group, who has been monitoring P2P companies. "At a guess, Microsoft will buy whoever's good when the smoke starts clearing."

Microsoft certainly cannot be described as a vocal cheerleader for P2P, especially compared with Intel, for example. Intel - which is developing a demonstration version of peer-based caching software - plans to grow its Peer-to-Peer Architecture group from 6 to 32 people by mid-2001, said Bob Knighten, Intel's P2P evangelist. This fall, Intel initiated the Peer-to-Peer Working Group, an effort to develop technical standards for emerging classes of P2P applications.

But, like Intel, Microsoft recognizes that the P2P trend is an opportunity to make the PC the locus of Internet computing. "People are recognizing that there are a zillion PCs deployed and out there on the edge of the network," Stutz said.