On Thursday, StreamCast Networks released a new test version of its Morpheus software. The application, for the first time, taps into all the major file-trading networks, including Kazaa, the world's largest, from which StreamCast was unceremoniously ejected several years ago. Other, smaller software programs such as Shareaza and the Macintosh-based Poisoned have had similar multinetwork search capabilities for some time, but StreamCast is the first major commercial company to go this route.
New file-swapping applications, such as StreamCast's test version of Morpheus, are bridging separate networks, promising to improve service and content offerings.
Peer-to-peer interoperability could be a boon for file traders, because it could give them access to more content and swapping partners. But it also could be a setback for companies such Sharman Networks that include advertising and other commercial features.
The drive toward building bridges between networks appears well under way, driven by independent, noncommercial programmers as well as companies seeking to capture the benefits of Kazaa's huge user base for themselves.
"I think everyone is going to have to start moving in that direction," said Jed McCaleb, chief developer of the eDonkey and Overnet applications, which Net measurement companies say are overtaking Kazaa overseas. "There are benefits of supporting other networks, because there are so many people in them."
StreamCast's move, in particular, spotlights the ongoing tension between pure technological progress and an often-bitter sparring between the top commercial peer-to-peer developers.
The company's Morpheus software was once the most popular of the post-Napster file-swapping services, but it used the same technology--called FastTrack--as Kazaa. After a dispute over software licensing, Morpheus users were overnight ejected from the network. The company's popularity plummeted as it shifted to open-source technology, and Sharman Networks' Kazaa became file swapping's unrivalled leader.
Kazaa has been downloaded more than 315 million times, while Morpheus has reached 119 million, according to Download.com, a software aggregation site owned by News.com publisher CNET Networks.
By offering searches of all the major networks, including its most bitter rival, StreamCast hopes to recapture the top spot in the business by making comprehensive search results its hallmark.
"Google does a great job for search results on the Web," StreamCast CEO Michael Weiss said. "We hope to do as good a job on the edge of the Net."
However, some critics warn that bridging networks this way can have risks, too. Bringing many new people onto a network can bog down or even destroy that network, if newcomers are using flawed technology--and some open-source developers looking at Morpheus' new software are already sayint it could have devastating effects on the popular Kazaa network.
Sharman Networks executives say they're not happy about StreamCast's actions and are evaluating the software.
"On the surface, we're never comfortable when someone uses unauthorized, illegal code to tap into FastTrack," said Sharman Chief Technology Officer Phil Morle. "But we're not in panic mode."
The company has previously tried to stop distribution of versions of the Kazaa software, such as Kazaa Lite, in which independent programmers stripped out its advertising components. It has allowed the open-source Poisoned Project, for which open-source developers found a way to let Macintosh computers tap into the FastTrack network, to proceed.
The bridging of the networks comes as entertainment companies are to see if a combination of lawsuits, education campaigns and the availability of legal content through services like Apple Computer's iTunes is finally putting a crimp in online piracy.
New data released Thursday by The NPD Group research firm have helped cloud a picture that has shown considerable drops in file swapping since the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began suing individuals last fall.
According to NPD, both the number of households observed using peer-to-peer software and the number of individual consumers who report that they have used file-swapping software, have, after months of declines.
The number of households that have file-swapping services on their computers jumped 14 percent between September and November, the group said. Separate survey information, gained from interviews with consumers over the same time period, estimated that the number of individuals who had downloaded music from file-swapping services rose from 11 percent to 12 percent of the population of computer users over 13 years old.
That's still substantially lower than the 20 percent mark reached last May, but it may indicate that the effect of the RIAA's lawsuits is wearing off, NPD said.
Another recent survey, conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, found that only 14 percent of Americans said they had downloaded music from a file-swapping network in December 2003, compared with 29 percent in a sample taken in March, April and May of 2003.
Building bridges, building trust
The drive toward interoperability has been under way for some time, but it is only now beginning to filter to the most popular file-sharing programs.
Peer-to-peer programmers say one of the most valuable resources a network has is people; more users mean more content--and a greater likelihood that any given search will get results. Adding bridges between networks is a natural way to increase the efficiency of file swapping at large, they say.
Indeed, some developers, including Microsoft itself, have foreseen using peer-to-peer technology astraditional Web search technologies such as Google. Letting different networks talk to each other is one step toward this vision.
However, these bridges pose dangers as well. Allowing large numbers of people into what has been a fairly small network community can be disruptive from both a technological and social perspective--a little like bussing large groups of noisy tourists into an ordinarily placid town.
"These things are like communities of people," eDonkey's McCaleb said. "There is a lot of possibility and opportunity to cheat the network and mess up how things work or exploit it."
Even if social mores are followed, large numbers of new outside users hold the potential of destroying an older network, if they are using technology that is flawed in any way. For example, bugs in a file-swapping client could swamp a network with redundant search requests, slowing down everybody's connection, as happened in early versions of the Gnutella network.
One independent developer who has worked on open-source FastTrack technology said he has looked at the Morpheus version, and it is configured in a way that could be deeply destructive to Kazaa, iMesh and the other FastTrack-based networks.
"What they don't understand is the fact that they could actually damage the FastTrack network," said Julian Ashton, the former lead developer on the Poisoned project. "It's really bad."
Weiss said StreamCast has tested its new software to make sure that it doesn't have a negative impact on the new networks it is tapping into. It has deliberately turned off access to the Gnutella2 network while it continues testing, however. Consumers will be able to reach eDonkey, Overnet, Gnutella, Kazaa and other FastTrack-based networks.
Like many other free programs, the new Morpheus also is bundled with several third-party applications, including a search-focused toolbar that plugs into Internet Explorer.
Not quite detente
StreamCast's return to FastTrack access carries more than a hint of irony.
Morpheus' new access to FastTrack is done without permission, using an open-source project called MLdonkey, one of several independent projects that has tapped into the proprietary network after reverse engineering the Kazaa software. It also allows Morpheus users access to content from Altnet, an application that sells licensed content through Kazaa and--as of Thursday--Grokster.
Weiss said he's not worried about being shut out of the network again, since Kazaa parent Sharman Networks has spent considerable time in court proving that it does not control what happens on its network.
"It will be interesting to see if they attempt to" block us, Weiss said. "I think if they do, they are going to have some explaining to do."
Altnet Vice President Derek Broes said his company is examining the new Morpheus software but that he can't yet comment on the unauthorized access to his company's content.
"We are looking at this from a number of angles--technical, legal--and also with regards to Altnet's patents," Broes said.