shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
Content Shifts to the Edges

The message of Napster, the wildly popular mp3 "sharing" software, is
plain: The internet is being turned inside out.

Napster is downloadable software that allows users to trade mp3 files
with one another.  It works by constantly updating a master song list,
adding and removing songs as individual users connect and disconnect
their PCs. When someone requests a particular song, the Napster server
then initiates a direct file transfer from the user who has a copy of
the song to the user who wants one. Running against the twin tides of
the death of the PC and the rise of application service providers
(ASPs), Napster instead points the way to a networking architecture
which re-invents the PC as a hybrid client+server while relegating the
center of the internet, where all the action has been recently, to
nothing but brokering connections.

For software which is still in beta, Napster's success is difficult to
overstate: at any given moment, Napster servers keep track of
thousands of PCs, holding hundreds of thousands of songs which
comprise *tera*bytes of data. This is a complete violation of the
Web's current data model -- "Content at the center" -- and Napster's
success in violating it points the way to an alternative -- "Content
at the edges".  The current content-at-the-center model has one
significant flaw: most internet content is created on the PCs at the
edges, but for it to become universally accessible, it must be pushed
to the center, to always-on, always-up Web servers.  As anyone who has
ever spent time trying to upload material to a Web site knows, the Web
has made downloading trivially easy, but uploading is still needlessly
hard.  Napster relies on three networking innovations to get around
these limitations:

* It dispenses with uploading and leaves the files on the PCs, merely
  brokering requests from one PC to another -- the mp3 files do not have
  to travel through any central Napster server. 

* PCs running Napster do not need a fixed internet address or a
  permanent conenction to use the service.

* It ignores the reigning Web paradigm of client and server. Napster
  makes no distinction between the two functions: if you can receive
  files from other people, they can receive files from you as well.

Leave aside for the moment the fact that virtually all of the file
transfers brokered by Napster are illegal -- piracy is often an
indicator of massive untapped demand. The real import of Napster is
that it is proof-of-concept for a networking architecture which
recognizes that bandwidth to the desktop is becoming fast enough to
allow PCs to act as servers, and that PCs are becoming powerful enough
to fulfill this new role. In other words, just as the ASP space is
taking off, Napster's success represents the revenge of the PC. By
removing the need to upload data (the single biggest bottleneck to
using the ASP model for everything), the content-at-the-edges model
points the way to a re-invention of the desktop as the center of a
user's data, only this time the user will no longer need physical
access to the PC itself. The use of the PC as central repository and
server of user content will have profound effects on several internet
developments currently underway:

* This is the ground on on which the Windows2000 vs. Linux battle will
  be fought. As the functions of desktop and server fuse, look for
  Microsoft to aggressively push Web services which rely on content-
  at-the-edges, trying to undermine Linux's hold on the server market.
  (Ominously for Linux, the Napster Linux client is not seen as a
  priority by Napster themselves.)

* Free hosting companies like Geocities exist because the present
  system makes it difficult for the average user to host their own web
  content. With PCs increasingly able to act as Web servers, look for
  a Napster-like service which simply points requests to individual
  users machines.

* WAP and other mobile access protocols are currently focussing on
  access to centralized commercial services, but when you are on the
  road the information you are likeliest to need is on *your* PC, not
  on CNN. An always-on always-accessible PC is going to be the
  ideal source of WAP-enabled information for travelling business
  people.

* The trend towards centralized personalization services on sites like
  Yahoo will find itself fighting with a trend towards making your PC
  the source of your calendar, phone book, and to do list. The Palm
  Pilot currently syncs with the PC, and it will be easier to turn the
  PC itself into a Web server than to teach the average user how to
  upload a contact database.

* Stolen mp3's are obvious targets to be served from individiual
  machines, but they are by no means the only such content category.
  Everything from wedding pictures to home office documents to amateur
  porn (watch for a content-at-the-edges version of persiankitty) can
  be served from a PC now, and as long as the data does not require
  central management, it will be more efficient to do so.

This is not to say that desktop will replace all web servers -- systems
which require steady backups or contain professionally updated content
will still continue to work best on centrally managed servers.
Nevertheless, Napster's rise shows us that the versatility of the PC as
a hardware platform will give the millions of desktop machines currently
in use a new lease on life.  This in turn means that the ASP revolution
will be not be as swift nor will the death of the PC be as total as the
current press would have us believe. The current content-at-the-center
architecture got us through the 90's, where PCs too poorly engineered to
be servers and bandwidth was too slow and variable to open a pipe to the
desktop, but with DSL and stable operating systems in the offing, much of
the next 5 years will be shaped by the rise of content-at-the-edges. 



Write clay@shirky.com with questions or comments.

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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source