Vista revs up peer-to-peer engine

Windows update will let laptops share information with nearby machines without a Net connection.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
3 min read
Whenever Windows Vista computers arrive, they will have their own special way of talking to one another.

Microsoft's new operating system, which won't arrive for consumers until early next year, has a new collaboration feature that allows laptops to share information with other nearby machines.

The underlying technology is known as "People Near Me" and is being used by Microsoft for its own software projects and by other developers. The company has built one program based on it into Vista--Windows MeetingSpace--that lets people share and view files.

The new collaboration tools are among a host of features, topped by improved search and new graphics abilities, that Microsoft is hoping will convince people to either upgrade from Windows XP or buy a new Vista-equipped PC. It had hoped to have the new operating system on store shelves in time for the 2006 holiday season, but is now shooting to be ready for a January mainstream launch.

MeetingSpace is designed with a couple of situations in mind. First is the scenario where people meet up at a coffeehouse and want to share data with one another. The other might be at a business, where several people are in a meeting and want to be able to view and edit a presentation together.

"You can just start a session and project onto someone's system," said Mika Krammer, a director in the Windows client unit.

MeetingSpace gallery

The feature requires the laptops to have some form of network connection but does not require Internet access, since the technology uses peer-to-peer connections. Users with most versions of Vista will be able to start a session; those with Home Basic can join a session but not start one of their own.

"We've tried not to exclude anyone from being part of a session," Krammer said.

Similar ad-hoc networks were possible in Windows XP and other versions of the operating system, but with Vista, there is a more robust means for connect nearby users, as well as the built-in MeetingSpace program.

The feature, which had been known as Windows Collaboration, was present in prior test versions of Windows, but Krammer said Microsoft has both renamed it and worked to make it more stable in the Beta 2 version of Vista that came out last week.

Allowing PCs to connect to one another easily does raise security challenges, the main one being that people may be duped into connecting to someone they are not looking to share with. The issue also exists in XP, where peer-to-peer options offer little beyond the name of the network and are listed alongside wireless Internet options.

But with Vista, Microsoft says it has put in place measures to ensure all parties know what they are getting into and are willing participants. People can choose whether to be seen or not in the "People Near Me" feature, and they can also decline or accept any particular invitation. Meanwhile, those hosting a session can choose not to broadcast their meeting and can also require users have a password, to keep out virtual party crashers.

The intent of MeetingSpace is to allow nearby participants to communicate. That means that the technology is good for a gathering where all parties are in the same physical location. But for the case where one or more people are "dialing in" to the meeting, a Web conferencing product like WebEx or Microsoft's LiveMeeting is still needed. There is some capability to invite remote participants if their network supports version 6 of the Internet Protocol (IPv6).