If you've been following the technology news lately you're probably familiar with Napster and the uproar it has created in the music industry. But what is sometimes overlooked is the mini-revolution in computing that the Napster model represents.

Napster, a system for trading music files in a digital format known as MP3, is built around a type of computing architecture known as peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing. Briefly, P2P represents a logical evolution of computing architecture toward the ideal of completely distributed computing, where the entire Internet will function as one seamless computer system.

In the beginning we had mainframes and dumb terminals. Then we had mainframes and PCs linked together into networks. Those networks in turn spawned client-server architecture, in which a large computer acted as a central resource to many smaller computers. (The Internet itself is largely built around the client-server model.) And now, thanks to the Internet, we have P2P computing, with every computer acting equally as a resource to any other computer.

P2P computing, however, is not confined to the online music industry - it can be used for sharing any kind of file with any user on any platform. It can be used for sharing video clips, database files, documents, or any other type of electronic file imaginable.

Why is P2P technology so much better than existing ways of file sharing for sharing meeting/trade show content? Today people can already share content of sessions through downloading video clips and programming notes from the meeting's Web site. What's the difference?

Greater Access There are a couple of significant differences. First, the kind of sharing of session content that goes on now is done by a Web site owner putting up a session to make it available for anyone visiting that site. Only a Web site owner can share with the site's visitors, but those visitors can't share among themselves. So any content that exists in your audience community is unreachable by anyone else in the community unless it is first sent to the Web site owner, reviewed, and posted to the site.

But what if someone in your audience has something they want to share with the rest of the audience? In P2P, anyone can play host to everyone else. Anyone can create a catalogue entry for any content on their own machine and make it generally available to the entire audience.

Second, in comparison to more traditional file-sharing technologies such as FTP (file transfer protocol) or e-mail, P2P has the advantage of being completely searchable and distributed. E-mail isn't searchable by anyone who isn't on the recipient list. And with an FTP server, all the shared content must be uploaded to the FTP server, causing a number of potential management and control issues, not to mention file format consistency issues.

In P2P, the content stays on the individual machines of the member of the file sharing community. Only the catalogue and search engine reside on the server.

Neither FTP nor e-mail allow any significant metadata (i.e., descriptive information) about files, so searching for specific types of content is very difficult. With P2P, you can define whatever kind of metadata you want to keep about a file - and the community members can define their own categories - so it's highly searchable.

P2P Meetings All meetings are built around the central concept of a community of like-minded people who share a common interest. In this column I've often written about the importance of identifying that community and understanding that serving the community via electronic means is just as important as serving it through your meetings. In fact, we in the meeting planning industry are really in the community-building industry. P2P represents a new and important delivery mechanism for building and serving those communities.

How can this technology work for a meeting planner? Eventually all intellectual property will be expressed in the form of electronic files, and any community wanting to share ideas will need to be able to trade those files. For example, the content of educational sessions is usually contained in a PowerPoint presentation that might be accompanied by an audio- or videotape. That content can be extremely valuable throughout a community, so making it available through P2P would serve both the community members and the community organizer.

Making session content available is something that may be most useful for large, distributed organizations. If an organization has many offices that handle events, then the session content in one event may not be known to those in other offices. P2P can make that content generally available to anyone in the organization. And since it's not centrally controlled (i.e., everyone can make whatever content available that they choose), a P2P system provides the framework for a true organizational knowledge base that traditional intranets can't match.

P2P is still a very new technology, but a number of companies will be coming to market with fully searchable, login-secured and encryption-protected P2P file sharing systems in the first half of 2001. This new technology will provide a community-building opportunity that every forward-thinking meeting planner should carefully consider.