But unlike previous debuts of new Internet technologies, which were initially greeted with unbridled enthusiasm, P2P's proponents are battling unflattering comparisons to the rise and fall of B2B, Napster hype and general analyst skepticism.
"P2P has been caught up in the pessimism of all the B2B failures," says Harvard professor and P2P analyst Andrew McAfee. "We're seeing the pendulum swing incredibly quickly."
At the same time, he says the sector doesn't deserve it. "Groove [Networks] and Consilient and Netrana have legitimate business plans," he says. Along with releasing its software earlier this month, Groove announced three big customers: pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, defense contractor Raytheon and the Department of Defense.
In its basic form, peer-to-peer computing refers to sharing files or computer resources, such as processing power, directly between individual computers. P2P advocates say the technology is more productive in some situations because it enables direct connections between computers, rather than using central servers.
"It's really more in line with how people do business today," says Jeff Montgomery, vice president of business development at Blue Tiger Networks, which makes a P2P trading platform. "We have to get past the hype of Napster and talk about what value it really brings."
One of the first areas P2P developers have tackled is collaboration, where Groove and Consilient work. Their software is designed to let individual PCs work on common documents or projects in unstructured ways.
"We support the unpredicted nature of human action," says Erik Freed, co-founder and president of Consilient.
Consilient makes a "sitelet" that acts as a virtual container, collecting various documents as a project moves from person-to-person or department-to-department. It's good for unstructured work that moves in sequential order. Groove's software, on the other hand, is designed to enable simultaneous collaborations.
For example, someone may be running a standard review of personnel records and spot the r‚sum‚ of a person who may be suited to a different position or a special assignment. Enterprise software may interfere with pulling the resume out for this unrelated purpose, but P2P software like Groove's could enable a handoff.
Consilient is marketing its sitelets to very large companies, which sometimes use portals to manage work flow with partners. This approach doesn't scale well as the business grows, and more and more activity is automated, Freed says. The Consilient application is suited to highly fragmented computer systems, like those at corporations like British Petroleum, a potential client.
"BP is ungodly big, cobbled from many companies. Saying you can use the standard portal model gets laughter from them," Freed says.
While collaboration may be the oldest area in which P2P vendors have operated, marketplaces and transactions are rapidly gaining their attention. FirstPeer has introduced a trading platform called GnuMarkets, and other platforms are coming from Biz2Peer Technologies and Blue Tiger. They believe that by letting buyers and sellers trade directly, rather than through the filter of a typical central exchange, they can avoid the adoption problems that kept transaction volumes low at scores of exchanges.
A big backer of this approach is Rusty Braziel, founder and chairman of Altra Energy Technologies, one of the most successful public exchanges. He left Altra in February to start Netrana, which is developing P2P trading applications. Netrana hopes to sell its SpotDealMaker software to exchanges and brokers that work in electronic components, chemicals and food products.
Braziel says the typical B2B exchange model involved funneling all buyers and sellers into a central place, and trying to cut out the personal connections that permeated the markets.
Blue Tiger, which built the platform for Netrana's application, expects to start three pilot programs with undisclosed private trading exchanges by June, Montgomery says. "If they want to do something in a lightweight manner that's distributed to trading partners, it's certainly more cost-effective and easier to deploy," he says.
P2P software vendors and users are also looking at knowledge management, or making content more accessible. It's one area in which analysts have praised the technology.
Companies can become more efficient by distributing content via peer-to-peer, says Gartner Group analyst Joe Sweeney. Napster's insight wasn't so much in letting people retrieve music files in a P2P fashion, but in creating a central directory so they could find what they wanted. Businesses want to do the same thing with spreadsheets, designs, personnel records, even minutes kept from meetings. Companies such as NextPage and SmartPeer are targeting that opportunity.