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10 Best File-Sharing Mechanisms of this Decade
December 14, 2009
Thomas Mennecke
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What a decade it's been! From Napster to BitTorrent, from RazorBack2 to The Pirate Bay, so many P2P communities have come and gone. But we're still around after all these years; now that we're all a bit older and wiser, what amazing things will come in the next decade?

Napster

What it was: Napster was one of the first mainstream P2P networks where millions could search and download just about any song. It certainly wasn’t the first P2P network - people had been sharing MP3s well before Naspter’s arrival. But it was revolutionary when it first arrived because Napster altered the course of music history and changed the way millions of people found and shared music.

What made it great: It’s the community, stupid! Naspter wasn’t technologically groundbreaking, but the community it formed was. Never before had the Internet accumulated so many music lovers in one spot. Hundreds and thousands of music chat rooms existed on Napster’s network – where the end user could find countless sources of new music. Despite the overwhelming popularity of subsequent networks, few have ever recreated the divine experience that Napster once was.

Where it is today: Within a few months of launching in 1999, Napster was sued by the music industry, represented by the RIAA. It died a slow and agonizing death, until the lights finally went out in 2001. Napster’s brand was resurrected as a pay service, but struggles to find a foothold against the iTunes juggernaut.

BitTorrent

What it is: BitTorrent remains the most popular protocol for sharing information online. When it was first launched in 2001, it sat on the P2P sidelines when other heavy hitters absorbed most of Napster’s refugees. Unlike most P2P protocols at the times, BitTorrent was designed to transfer large files efficiently. It does this by creating swarms of users sharing identical files. How do peers find these swarms? With a tracker and torrent files – the future of file-sharing.

What made it great: Its best attribute remains its ability to disseminate large pieces of data efficiently. This wasn’t too important when BitTorrent was first released, but as more people acquired broadband and a thirst for TV shows and movies, BitTorrent quickly became the go to community. This helped BitTorrent gain popularity previously unknown in the file-sharing world, as millions of users surrounded communities such as SuprNova and The Pirate Bay.

Where it is today: BitTorrent may be very resourceful and popular, but it has more of a ‘hit and run’ nature than the more communal networks like Napster. But it’s tremendously efficient and resistant to attack – whether by legal means or cyber warfare. This has helped BitTorrent remain a permanent fixture on the internet landscape. For better or worse, BitTorrent will likely be around for a long time to come – or at least until the next great thing comes along,

Usenet

What it was: Usenet, or the newsgroups, is a worldwide distributed network designed for people to gather and discuss a variety of topics. These topics are categorized into individual newsgroups, which help keep the Usenet environment organized. Human nature being what it is, this wasn’t good enough, and people eventually figured out how to distribute binary files, and thus the creation of the alt.binaries newsgroups.

What made it great: Depends on who you ask. The newsgroups contain a lot of community spirit, and the boundless resources of BitTorrent. Newsgroup access is secure, safe, and its speed is almost unparalleled.

Where it is today: After nearly 30 years, Usenet is still around – and for good reason. It is seen as a safe haven from the hectic legal tirades that have plagued other online communities.

eDonkey2000

What it is: The great eDonkey2000 (ED2K) community is merely a name with an ever shifting array of network technologies. ED2K began with network architecture similar to Napster - a searchable and centralized indexing severs that connected peers. But the way files were acquired resembles BitTorrent. MetaMachine (the original and now defunct owners) attempted to steer clear of the copyright powers by giving the centralized server component over to the public.

What made it great: By handing over the server technology to the public, some very interesting forces were released. This helped develop a strong community where some very popular networks would develop, such as RazorBack2.

Where it is today: The community grew resistant to MetaMachine’s planned changes (such as Overnet) and wasn’t pleased with the lack of progress on the original eDonkey client. As a result, the community developed the independent and open source eMule client and Kademlia DHT network, which quickly usurped the old eDonkey2000 community. Today, eMule and Kad remain very popular with several million users, and despite the quantum shift in ED2K technology, users still refer to themselves as part of the ED2K community.

FastTrack

What it was: FastTrack was the brainchild of Janus Friis and Nicholas Zennstrom – they would eventually go on to build Skype. But in 2001, FastTrack was well on its way to becoming, at least for a short time, the largest P2P network and heir to the Napster crown. With millions of simultaneous users and led by the flagship client KaZaA, FastTrack went on to become the mainstream resource for music and videos by the mid 2000s. The technology behind FastTrack was much more advanced than Napster, and took advantage of decentralized indexing servers (or superpeers) to help peers find each other.

What made it great: With FastTrack’s enormous size, a wide variety of music and movies were available for the mainstream public. It was also a fun punch line for much of the P2P crowd.

Where it is now: Unfortunately, the company behind FastTrack (Sharman Networks) did not appreciate outside development, and interesting products like Kazaa Lite were prohibited from the network. Pesky third party software was also a hallmark of Kazaa, an attribute that would help lead to its decline. It didn’t help that FastTrack was the RIAA’s primary target in its lawsuit campaign that began in 2003. Worse of all, the reliability of the network suffered greatly thanks to anti-P2P companies flooding the network with corrupt files. Although some portion of FastTrack still exists, it is no longer considered a reliable source of information for file-sharers.

Ares Galaxy

What it is: Ares Galaxy is a small, traditional P2P network that has maintained some popularity despite the overwhelming growth of BitTorrent. Created by Alberto Treves, Ares Galaxy is network with a population of several hundred thousand. It started off as a Gnutella client, but a frustrated Alberto broke off from the flock to create his own network in December of 2002.

What made it great: There was nothing particularly striking about Ares Galaxy that made it stand out from the crowd – it could download and share music just as well as any other P2P client. But Ares Galaxy’s eventual path to greatness occurred when Alberto Treves refused to shut his service down in response to music industry demands, and instead released the source code to the public in 2005.

Where it is now: Few have heard from Alberto Treves in several years. But what was once his network and client now belongs to the community. If it wasn’t for Alberto’s actions, Ares Galaxy would’ve vanished years ago. A dedicated community continues to help make this network a good resource.

WinMX

What it was: The creation of Kevin Hearn and Frontcode technologies, WinMX nearly usurped Napster and the P2P crown. WinMX started its life as an OpenNap community, but simultaneously supported its own network in 2001. Although long queue times stifled downloads, it was a highly regarded P2P client and network thanks to its resourcefulness, utilitarian design and lack of commercialism. If you were willing to wait, the world was at your fingertips through WinMX

What made it great: Simply put - the community. Forget the long download queues, the frustratingly slow pace of development, and clunky design. If you loved music, love P2P, and loved the digital revolution, WinMX was your best friend.

Where it is now: Frontcode pulled the plug on the WinMX project in 2005, thanks in part to a suspected cease and desist demand from the music industry. The community surrounding the project attempted to resurrect the network, which was partially successful, but by this time most users had moved on to either BitTorrent or something else. The network still exists, but the software is vintage 2005 or earlier. Maybe version 4.0 will turn things around.

Limewire/Gnutella

What it is: Gnutella was there to the rescue in mid 2000 when Napster's fate was in the balance. Unlike Napter, there was no central point of failure. It was the first decentralized P2P network, released briefly by Nullsoft until their parent company AOL pulled the plug a few hours after release.

What made it great: Although the official version of Gnutella was axed, its brief appearance was enough. The program was immediately popular, and people soon went to work and reverse engineered the program. This helped develop a strong community, leading to the formation of many independent developers such as LimeWire, FreePeers (BearShare), and Gnucleus. This helped transform Gnutella from an overwhelmed network on the brink of collapse in mid 2000 into a premier P2P network by 2003-2004.

Where it is now: Gnutella and LimeWire still exist, but thanks to BitTorrent, Gnutella's relevance is quickly eroding. The development community that once surrounded Gnutella is largely gone, in part due to a major lawsuit that annihilated FreePeers. Although Gnutella is still good for a quick song, there's very little it can offer compared to BitTorrent, Yahoo, iTunes or Google.

SoulSeek

What it is: SoulSeek is the creation of former Napster employee Nir Arbel. SoulSeek is a small network with only a few hundred thousand users, but the influences of Napster are apparent – hundreds of chatrooms organized around various genres of hard to find music.

What made it great: Unlike most P2P networks, there is little mainstream or top 40 music on SoulSeek. Instead, most people come to SoulSeek to discover new music; genres such as electronic, house, dance and drum n’ bass, among many others, are very popular. SoulSeek is also popular with musicians, adding to its credibility as a true music lovers P2P network.

Where it is now: SoulSeek has managed to survive since the early days of file-sharing, thanks in part to the relative absence of top 40 music. But SoulSeek has run into some legal problems in France, where it was sued last year by the music industry. How much life remains in SoulSeek is unknown, but their homepage reflects an upbeat attitude by Nir. If SoulSeek does go down, it won’t be due to a lack of interest or a sudden loss in population. Indeed, SoulSeek is one of the last great P2P networks from that’s been around since the beginning.

AudioGalaxy

What it was: Imagine combining social networking and Napster into one convenient package – that was AudioGalaxy. Ahead of its time, AudioGalaxy employed a small “satellite” program that sat in your task bar and managed transfers, and searches were conducted via the web. AudioGalaxy quickly became popular in 2001 following the demise of Napster, and in many ways outnapped the Napster.

What made it great: AudioGalaxy had an enormous population thanks to Napster refugees and the curious coming in droves. This populated AudioGalaxy with many people and songs – especially rare music that no other network at the time could provide (and probably to this day as well). Like Facebook, AudioGalaxy users were able to create public profiles that helped discover and share new music. A truly innovative community that remains unparalleled.

Where it is now: AudioGalaxy was sued into oblivion in 2002 – which was easy considering its centralized nature. A loss for everyone and a discredit to the music industry – an opportunity lost.


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