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The geeks are back
O'Reilly & Associates first Peer-to-Peer conference happened this week in San Francisco, and managed to whip up a surprising amount of froth in the media [for example: 1,2,3]. The buzz level was high at the show itself, too. O'Reilly organizers told me they expected about 500 to attend; instead, the show was sold out with over 900 attendees, all of them cramming excitedly into small ballrooms to hear various people hold forth on the arcana of P2P technologies. There were hundreds of press folks, of course, but the show's real attendees were, by and large, geeks. There was hardly a suit to be seen.
What a relief. Until I visited the show, I was under the impression that every remotely-marketable corner of the Internet had long since been overrun by MBAs and thirty-something venture capitalists with more attitude than technical smarts. The P2P conference, by contrast, seemed reminiscent of the Web's old days, circa 1994, when readers of Mondo 2000 could still gather in small clumps to talk excitedly about temporary autonomous zones and the revolutionary possibilities of the world hive mind, in between heated arguments about TCP/IP packet routing, public key security infrastructures, and whether the Apple II or the Amiga was a better hacking platform. Optimism reigned -- sometimes even bordering on utopianism: witness Lawrence Lessig's (!) talk, "Free Code, Freeing Culture" and Marc Stiegler's presentation on "Governance in Coercion-Free Societies." Yeah! Let's hear it for techno-anarchy!
I had a very entertaining conversation with some wild-eyed developers from an outfit called ToadNode, who are making what they describe as a "universal plug-in platform for P2P networks." Then they translated that into English for me: What Netscape Navigator was to the World Wide Web, they said, their product would be to the P2P world. What they've built could be a universal P2P client platform, with plug-ins for accessing Gnutella, FreeNet, Napster, or what have you. So, what's the business model for this thing? Who knows? Who cares! This is cool!
There seemed to be a high proportion of enthusiastic, hairy, and v-e-r-y comfortably dressed computer science types; in fact, among the crowd were students and professors from most of the country's big university computer science departments. Eavesdropping at the cocktail party, I heard a lot of people talking about what interesting technologies they had seen, or debating security models and communications layers -- and no one boasting about which venture firm had backed them.
I find this very encouraging. Paradoxically, the most radical and market-moving innovations tend to come from the people who are least concerned about reshaping markets. Vint Cerf may be sitting pretty right now, but when he and a few other geniuses sat down to invent what we now know as the Internet , I doubt that revolutionizing retail and B2B commerce were at the top of his agenda. The Net, at the time, was an academic projects heavily subsidized by research grants from the U.S. government. Likewise, Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee set out to create a communications tool, not a market, and Berners-Lee has steadfastly refused to get rich off of his invention.
By contrast, the big swashbuckling pirates who have made the Internet into an industrial revolution have been tweakers and fiddlers with technology, not sui generis inventors: Marc Andreessen, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison. They, and the hordes of business wonks shoveling up the latest belated insights from Clay Christensen  or the entertaining neo-hip babblings of the Cluetrain Manifesto  may have done a lot to make the Internet into a real business, but they've done so by standing on the giants that went before them. And really radical innovation has suffered, as a result.
At the end of the day, P2P may or may not turn out to be the Next Big Thing. In a way, it's really the Old Big Thing -- because the Internet itself is, fundamentally, a peer-to-peer network: There's no central server controlling everything. But that's almost beside the point. Whether these new P2P technologies eventually produce another crop of twenty-something millionaires or not, it's good to see that there are still some pockets where technical innovation is valued and prized in and of itself. It's that innovation that ultimately drives progress on the Internet.
Prize Honors Four 'Fathers of the Internet'
 InnoSight (Christensen's consulting firm)