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P2P for cell phones: Reach out and share something

Next year, wireless operators will debut ways to share a favorite ring tone. But don't expect a Napster free-for-all.

Cell phones are learning to share files, but the earliest efforts don't nearly resemble the peer-to-peer renegades like Napster and Kazaa that the designers have in mind.

FoneShare, an application introduced two weeks ago by NewBay Software, does let people share their collections of ring tones, graphics, games, songs, movie trailers and other wireless extras with strangers. FoneShare will debut next year as a subscription service, running over privately owned and operated cellular networks, and the sharing will be done via Web sites controlled by a wireless operator, said NewBay Chief Executive Paddy Holahan. That's a far cry from Napster, which was free, let people choose from digital music libraries stored on untold millions of personal computers, and relied heavily upon the anonymity of the public Internet.

When it became possible five years ago to freely swap copyrighted material over the Internet, the entertainment industry began a battle that still rages today. But, as file-sharing now finds its way from PCs to cell phones, there is very little resistance; in fact, those same fierce opponents of file-swapping are among the technology's biggest cheerleaders.

"All the labels are very focused on the mobile space," said Scott Hochgesang, the executive vice president of the Universal Music Group. "We may have been a bit slow to things happening on the Internet, but we won't do that again."

The reasons go beyond FoneShare's draconian control over the intellectual property that's being shared. Because their networks are private, wireless operators can easily identify which files are being shared and even shut down handsets that are doing a suspicious amount of file trading. Also, wireless operators have microbilling systems to track millions of subscribers at a time and ensure everyone gets their fair share of the revenue.

By comparison, Internet service providers' networks are just barely smart enough to sell movies on demand. Five years ago, when Napster, Morpheus and Kazaa debuted, networks didn't stand a chance, catching record companies off-guard as hundreds of millions of songs were shared for free.

"If there's any piracy going on, anywhere, the wireless operator can track you down," Holahan said. "It's like the Internet, without all the crazy stuff."