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Lessons from Napster

by David Sims
02/15/2001

Other than, "Don't mess with the RIAA," what lessons can we learn from Napster?

Author and P2P pundit Clay Shirky, a partner with The Accelerator Group, offered four lessons to take from Napster in his keynote at the O'Reilly Peer-to-Peer conference in San Francisco on Wednesday morning. Shirky steered clear of intellectual property issues, talking to an audience made up mostly of developers.

Lesson one is that, although Napster isn't completely decentralized, it is "decentralized enough" to qualify as a peer-to-peer application. In fact, the places where it is centralized (maintaining databases of user names and songs) turned out to be "very savvy business behavior."

"You would not be happy to maintain a database of users whose music you dont like," Shirky told the crowd of about 1,000 -- mostly developers. Napster's centralization handles the master databases while each user can focus on maintaining lists of the people and music they are willing to use their resources on.

Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky giving a thumbs up to the audience

Shirky denounced "peerier than thou" purists who criticize Napster's technology for using some some aspects of centralization. "Rather than have a test of who is in and who is out, we should work with people who share our goals. Anyone thinking about ways of decentralizing power and putting it in the hands of users... shares a goal with me."

John von Neumann to Alfred E. Newman

Shirky's second lesson from Napster was that even a poor interface wouldn't block users from getting into a system if the system really empowers them to do something they want to do. Although Napster's interface is poor by the convention rules of web interface design, the system as a whole greatly simplifies the tasks necessary to serve a file on the Internet.

He ran through the steps one would have to go through to set up one's own domain-named server, including working through the Apache configuration files ("a travesty of user hostility") and pointing out the number of people whose permission you had to obtain (the registrar) or who you had to pay and wait on (your ISP).

"If, however, that file is a music file, you can be serving it in 5 minutes without involving anybody else," thanks to Napster and its ilk.

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Napster simplifies the problem of obtaining a namespace from which you can contribute to the Internet, and simplifying will become ever more important.

"In the old days the average computer was in the John von Neumann range; now they are in the Alfred E. Newman range, and that is not going to change. This is our world."

Joys and risks of subversion

A third lesson was that we're witnessing a repeat of the subversion that happened in the early 1980s when individual users began sneaking PCs into their work environments under the noses of their mainframe administrators. Mainframe admins thought only people with special training should have that level of control, and they weren't keen to learn how to administer 20 types of desktop machines. Similarly today, people are sneaking peer-to-peer applications in under the nose of their network administrations. They see it as a way to route around blockage.

Fourth and finally, since the task of creating your own namespace under the domain name system was so burdensome, services like Napster, ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger stepped in offering individuals their own namespaces. But that universe is already far greater than the DNS and is growing far more rapidly. Shirky says we run a risk of Balkanization, even as we get ease of use.

"Whatever else you think about, think about interoperability. Don't think about standards yet."

In closing he paid homage to Sun's adage, The Network is the Computer, without mentioning Sun by name. Instead, he turned to a commonly referenced bad guess by IBM founder Thomas Watson, but this time with a twist.

"Fifty years ago, Thomas Watson estimated there was a worldwide need for maybe five computers. We now know that that number was wrong. He overestimated by 4."


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