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 sometimes gets lost in the breathless reporting of rebellious music fans vs. entrenched, old-economy recording industry stalwarts is the mini-revolution in computing that the Napster model represents.

Napster, for those who aren't familiar with it, is a system for trading music files in a digital format known as MP3. Napster is built around a 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--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 into networks. Those networks spawned client-server architecture, in which a large computer acted as a central resource for many smaller computers (the Internet itself is largely built around the client-server model). And now, thanks to the Internet, we have peer-to-peer computing, wherein every computer acts equally as a resource for any other computer. Napster uses this model. P2P computing, however, is not confined to the online music industry. The P2P architecture can be used for sharing any kind of file with any user on any platform. P2P can be used for sharing video clips, database files, documents, or any other type of electronic file.

The Meeting Link The important similarity between the music industry and the meetings industry, and why Napster represents such an interesting archetype, is that both serve very well-defined communities of people with like interests. And in any community of like-minded people, some members are bound to have intellectual content, expressed in the form of an electronic file of some sort, that others would like to share.

In this column, I've written many times about the importance of identifying the common interests of your community and of understanding that serving your community via electronic communication is just as important as serving it through live events. The meeting planning industry is really the community-building industry, with meetings being just one delivery mechanism. P2P represents a new and important delivery mechanism for building and serving those communities.

Communities centered around technology issues, such as technology user groups, are particularly good examples of how P2P file-sharing serves the needs of community members and simultaneously advances the objectives of the meeting planner. Tech groups share files with each other all the time, sending around bits of interesting code, unusual routines, or other bits of useful content. Tech planners are continually looking for ways to deliver solid technical sessions and to provide good networking opportunities. Both planners and community members would be well-served by setting up a virtual file-sharing community, based on P2P technology. The planner could use the P2P system to gather information for building sessions around the needs and interests of those communities and to provide ongoing and ever-growing content for continuing the development of those communities after the sessions end.

P2P is still a very new technology, but a number of companies will be coming to market with fully searchable, log-in secured, and encryption-protected P2P file-sharing systems in the first half of 2001. This new technology will provide a community-building opportunity that no forward-thinking meeting planner should ignore.