Meet the Napster

Shawn Fanning was 18 when he wrote the code that changed the world. His fate, and ours, is now in the court's hands

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Fellow programmers marvel at what Fanning was able to accomplish when he moved into his uncle's office, a computer gaming company in seaside Hull, and set to work on Napster. It was the first major program Fanning had ever written. "One thing that sets Shawn or any really great programmer apart from mediocre ones is their focus," says Ali Aydar, a friend from Massachusetts who now works as a Unix programmer in Napster's Redwood City, Calif., offices. "Shawn is able to concentrate, and collaborate and appropriate if necessary. He's also able to handle criticism. Most alpha-geeks can't take criticism. They'll get into arguments. Shawn actually listens and takes the best part of what you say."

Fanning, to put it another way, is coachable. That's a trait picked up from his jock years, when he excelled at basketball and baseball, hitting .750 as a shortstop on a state championship-winning team. It may be that his success as an athlete gave Fanning the confidence to quit school to pursue his idea. And it may be through playing team sports--running endless baseball fungo drills and basketball layup lines--that he picked up the discipline that allows him to focus on whatever is in front of him, to complete whatever task is at hand, whether it is taking a pitch to the opposite field or writing a computer program. You learn, believes Fanning, how to take criticism when you're part of a team.

In creating Napster, Fanning not only transformed the music business, but he also helped launch a new programming movement--and a whole wave of start-ups dedicated to what has become known as P2P, or peer-to-peer, client-based Internet software. Among Napster's revolutionary qualities is that it allows computer users to exchange files directly, avoiding server bottlenecks and, Fanning once hoped, legal problems. Only Napster's index and directory reside on a central server; the files are actually transferred via various Windows protocols directly from user to user. That means that no copyrighted material is ever in Napster's possession.

There are myriad--and totally legal--possibilities for P2P applications, from swapping dense technical files through a local-area network (something scientists at the Centers for Disease Control are looking into) to replacing corporate servers with P2P systems for business applications. "The old days [i.e., the current Internet] were all about centralization and control, almost Soviet-style," says Miko Matsumura, CEO and co-founder of Kalepa Networks, a six-month-old start-up that plans to link P2P networks into a sort of alternative Internet. "In this new topology, everyone brings their own resources. The new network will be built on top of the old network. Like Rome was built in different layers."

The new network, in other words, may not completely supplant the old, but it offers a new space for creating ideas and transferring them faster, more freely, more widely than ever before. Teams of designers, Web developers and business-school graduates are working up P2P programs and business plans and trotting them over to venture capitalists, who, in the wake of all the buzz about Napster, have been funding P2Ps the way they funded their alphabetical brethren B2Bs--business-to-business companies--last winter.

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