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issue: 02/15/2001

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A Second Date with the Gnomes of San Jose:
The second meeting of the Intel Peer-to-Peer Working Group

by Cory Doctorow

The first meeting of the Intel P2P Working Group will be remembered as the last gasp of Internet Tulip Bulb Mania. On that heady autumn day, an obscure technical design-principle was catapaulted into the next great Internet money-making opportunity. Intel planned on sixty attendees at their inaugural meeting: what they got was some three hundred, from stone technologists to starry-eyed dreamers who knew that any acronym with a two in the middle was a sure path to riches untold. Every speaker who took the mic -- generally to harangue Intel for their super-heirarchical proposed structure for the working group -- made a point of rattling off their company's name and a quickie elevator pitch. VCs and analysts took notes. Tim O'Reilly made a fine speech and announced a P2P faire that his publishing concern was staging in February along the lines of their wildly successful -- if somewhat anarchic -- open-source conferences.

Weeks ticked past. Napster, the bad-boy of P2P, got bought out by Berte lsmann. Beta code shipped. Companies got funded. More conferences were announced. People started to twig to the fact that O'Reilly's populist alternative to the working group would cost in excess of $1,000 to attend. The NASDAQ crawled up its own ass and died. Tens of thousands of dot-commers got laid off, and the VCs pulled up the ladders and dogged the hatches.

The day before Christmas, Intel announced that they were staging the second meeting of the working group on February 7th, said meeting to include a demo-day where hundreds of P2P companies could show off their wares, along with a really thorough irrigation of the organization's colon in the form of a frank and open discussion of more palatable structures for the working group. That this festival of repentence and reconcilliation would take place one week before the rival O'Reilly show hardly escaped the industry's notice, nor did the fact that it was free and that the timing of the announcement made it just about impossible for anyone involved with the O'Reilly show to respond until after the holidays. Intel was staging a coup -- a free alternative to O'Reilly's pricey show. Anyone gearing up for O'Reilly would have to take some time out of their busy sched to get something demo-able for Intel. You don't get to be big enough to hire the Simpsons to shill for your semiconductors without some strategic horse-sense.

But, but, but. It was not to be. Demo day was boasted twenty-something exhibitors -- not the projected hundred-plus -- and several confirmed companies apparently did not show at all, leaving empty tables and dangling Ethernet cables as stark evidence of their disinterest or ill-preparedness (or financial straits?). The demo-room was half the size of the hall in which the first, standing-room-only meeting had been held in, but you could have rolled a can of cola from one end to the other without tripping a single person.

And the next day -- the day on which "P2P community" would set the structure and agenda of the Working Group -- the hall was three-quarters empty. The catering metric tells the whole story: at the last meeting, the pastry trays were naked by 9AM. This time 'round, the still-heavily laden trays were shlepped away to the food-bank come lunchtime.

Enough with the food: how did the meeting go? Well, Intel proposed a significantly more palatable structure this time around. Anyone spoiling for a fight was left picking over the bones of the proposal -- Intel left in a few objectionable bits, such as a special provision that had their rep chairing the group for the first three years, which they folded on as soon as Tim O'Reilly brought it to their attention.

Inevitably, the morning's meeting descended into a debate about the minutae of the group's structure, and, blessedly, lunch was called.

The afternoon was members only -- if you ponied up five grand to join the working group, you're a member. Most of the session was taken up with the election of officers. Less than an hour was taken up with any technology-related discussion, most of which was a debate about whether there's any basis for any kind of P2P standards.

At the end of the day, it was resolved that the Working Group wouldn't be proposing any kind of standards any time soon: instead, we'd be making recommendations of classes of things that might someday be standardized. Maybe.

But can the P2PWG actually standardize anything? Is there any automatic common cause between companies that call themselves P2P? P2P is a broad church, one that encompasses everything from AOL Instant Messenger to Gnutella.

I dunno. Seems to me that P2P is one of those nebulous terms like "Intellectual Property." If you make Intellectual Property (patented mechanisms for detonating fertilizer bombs) and I make Intellectual Property (unsuccessful Broadway musicals adapted from fifties sitcoms), do we need an umbrella group to protect our common interests?*

b i o :
Cory Doctorow won the Campbell Award for best new science fiction writer at the Hugos in 2000. He is the co-founder and Chief Evangelist of OpenCola.

*Well, there's the World Intellectual Property Organization, but that didn't come into being until both Broadway musicals and patents were well-developed in their own right.


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