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Content-on-the-Edges: The Decentralization of the Net

Remember disintermediation, the process by which online denizens methodically cut out the middleman in the real world—first stockbrokers (eTrade), then travel agents (Travelocity), then record companies (Napster)?

Well, the chickens are coming home to roost.

The online search engines are taking their turn at being threatened by disintermediation. Companies like iMesh.com and programs like Gnutella are taking a leaf out of Napster's book and turning the Internet inside out. These Web sites allow users to search for and exchange various file types directly from the desktop, without the need to set up a Web site or upload files to a server. In essence, this new technology can easily create a virtual private network (VPN).

Gnutella, for example, is a network architecture that enables real-time searches of vast libraries of content. That's in stark contrast to current search engines like Excite, Yahoo!, and AltaVista, which use Web crawlers to search one site at a time. It takes weeks or months for a search engine to crawl the Web and add new Web sites. Gnutella's peer-to-peer network works like the old game of "telephone." A user's computer is connected directly to 20 others, and those in turn are connected to 20, more for a total of 400. Add only two more layers, and the original computer can talk to 160,000 computers on the network. It also means virtually no dead links.

Where Napster had a centralized Web site that could be blocked, the Gnutella program has none. Gnutella is distributed across hundreds of thousands of individual computers. Clay Shirky, a New Media professor at Hunter College in New York, calls this "content at the edges."

According to Shirky, this violates the Net's current "content at the center" data model, relegating it to nothing but brokering connections. Content-at-the-edges reinvents the PC as a hybrid client/server and places it squarely in the center of a new architecture of the Net. Content-at-the-edges accomplishes a number of unique things:

  • It dispenses with uploading and leaves the files on PCs. This eliminates the cumbersome use of an FTP process.

  • PCs running on the new network don't need a fixed Internet address (of which there is a finite number).

  • It ignores the reigning Net paradigm of client and server. If you can receive files from another PC, it can receive files from you.

All this proves that PCs can act as servers and that they're powerful enough to fill this new role. What does that mean for e-commerce? One word: competition. And from a most unlikely source.

Content-at-the-edges makes a PC act like Web server that can be searched by anyone on the virtual private network created by content-at-the-edges technology. That means that all the money, time, and energy spent by large e-commerce sites on building a brand and hoping to lock out the Johnny-come-lately players may be for naught. With this new technology, e-commerce virtual private networks—or shopping malls—can be set up easily, by anyone with a product or service to sell. Now anyone with a PC has the ability to compete with even the largest of the e-commerce sites on the Net. Think of these VPNs as private shopping districts, without the problem of setting up complicated Web servers and the expense of Web hosting.

In addition, Wireless Access Protocol (WAP), the 500-pound gorilla of wireless commerce, is focusing on access and control of centralized commercial services. But with content-at-the-edges technology, a shopper can bypass the central service and go directly to a PC that has the product or service the shopper desires.

And here's another challenge to your e-business. Current e-commerce sites keep logs on their visitors so they can target ads and offers to said visitors. But Gnutella-like technology is anonymous. When a user sends a query to a Gnutella VPN, not much in the query links it to the user. In short, there may be no safer way to use the Net without being watched.

Content-at-the-edges technology is worth watching—and perhaps using in your marketing strategy.

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