The company says it has no specific project or product in mind yet. But a spokeswoman confirmed that Sun is building a team that is exploring peer-to-peer technology development, in part as a way to help boost sales of the company's Java software and industrial-strength network server systems.
Sun's interest could help push the young technology in new directions. Peer-to-peer software has captured the spotlight as a way for people with desktop computers to trade music or video files through services such as Napster or Gnutella.
But developers say the applications could be far more widespread as the model is applied more broadly. The power of peer-to-peer models is that any computers connected to a network can share resources, bandwidth and processing power, whether they are home PCs or industrial-strength servers, programmers say.
That's where Sun could come in. Much of the company's products and development strategies are focused on moving computer functions away from the desktop, to take advantage of powerful servers elsewhere in the network. But these servers, too, can be connected in a peer-to-peer model, the company believes.
Interview with Sun CEO Scott McNealy
Sun's entry into the field may move the peer-to-peer development world a step farther from the anarchic crowd of developers that helped popularize simple file-swapping programs like Napster and Scour.
That group's work has been delayed as Intel responds to complaints from the independent developer community about the way it tried to create the organization.
"There was a fair amount of unhappiness about the structure we proposed," said Intel "peer-to peer-evangelist" Bob Knighten. The chipmaker is circulating new proposals for the group and scrapping costly membership fees that critics said would bar smaller companies from participating.
Microsoft, which is rarely far from Sun's strategic calculus, has yet to announce any pure peer-to-peer projects.
Part of the Sun group's work will be to look at other peer-to-peer applications to see if they can be fit into the Java mold, Tognoli said. The group will also be investigating just how widely through a network, and through what type of machines, the model can be applied.
Java in some ways is a natural fit for peer-to-peer designs because it is designed to make it easier to run software on a multitude of devices--desktop computers, cell phones, servers, Palms or TV set-top boxes.
A problem with peer-to-peer software today is the difficulty in ensuring that different clients can tap into a network. For example, it took months to come up with a Macintosh version of Napster's client software, and Linux fans cloned their own.
In a job posting for the peer-to-peer group, Sun is soliciting the help of people who have experience with "small and/or mobile devices" as well as a more traditional computing background.
The company already has a distributed computing product called Gridware, which allows multiple computers to share a processing job. Distributed computing is often linked with peer-to-peer models, as technologies rely on a host of networked computers.
News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.