Innovators not creating very much in P2P infrastructure

by Andy Oram

Nobody seems to be creating much infrastructure for peer-to-peer applications. At least, that's how it should be, as we heard this morning from Bill Joy (of BSD and Sun fame) in his P2P conference keynote.

You've heard the clichés "Less is more" and "The government that governs least, governs best" and "Everything should be as simple as possible but no simpler." Well, Joy's talk suggested to me that peer-to-peer should have as few standards as possible, but no fewer.

I didn't enter the Westin's grand ballroom all groomed to be won over by Bill Joy, archangel of computing though he may be. I had heard several cynical reports (such as a weblog by Rael Dornfest) of Sun's recent Sun ONE announcement, which several people thought was mostly a hyped combination of old features. I knew Joy was going to make a major announcement in his keynote, but expected nothing better than "ONE squared."

But there does seem to be solid good sense behind JXTA, the odd buzzword that Sun derived from the word "juxtaposition." Bill Joy explained that their long tunneling through the dictionary during the Java years have left them with a lot of trouble finding more words that begin with J. He apparently did not think it appropriate to use the work "jockeying," even though this is obviously what the new initiative is trying to accomplish relative to Microsoft's .NET and Intel's recent release of an open-source library for
peer-to-peer application infrastructure.

Good sense, even so, because Joy and his management staff claim to be disavowing world domination. First, JXTA is meant to be small. Like a well-designed language, Joy said, it should provide just enough to fulfill all the requirements at its own level and leave room for people to innovate at a higher level. He listed three tasks:

  1. To allow pipes from one peer to another.

  2. An ability to group peers and form heirarchies of groups.

  3. To allow monitoring: knowing what's going on across the network, instituting policies, and maintaining control.

Second, Sun is trying to avoid a repeat of the grumbling its Java licensees have expressed over its control of that language. Project manager Mike Clary avows that Sun is "just another participant out there that's helping to influence the technology." JXTA will be placed under an Apache-style license.

Their goal? Quite modest, said Joy: "We want to develop a platform so we can produce some successful apps and build a community around it. If there are other communities, that's fine."

And one of the most perceptive statements of the morning, I thought, came from the marketing manager, who deliberately called Sun's current sandbox the "peer-to-peer space" rather than the "peer-to-peer market." She said, "There's no "peer-to-peer market any more than there's a client/server market." I think it's critical to recognize, as she does, how broad the buzzword "peer-to-peer" is.

Attempts at world domination, which Tim O'Reilly warned against during the discussion following the keynote, came up in various guises several times through the day. During a panel about Web services, for instance, when asked how end users could trust the reliability and honesty of a service, Dr. Steve Burbeck of IBM suggested "a Better Business Bureau or Dun & Bradstreet model for a trusted rater of Web services." It seems that rampant decentralization needs to be countered by some centralization. Other panelists, however, suggested that peer rating (as is done imperfectly now on eBay) could fill the credibility gap.

Freenet project manager Brandon Wiley seemed set on world domination, as he described how all Internet protocols are being rewritten by his team to run over Freenet. All your applications could work just like before, except that you'd feel like you were Alice in Wonderland after quaffing the bottle that said "Drink me." I cannot describe the bizarre effect of his hilarious and insightful talk.

Jim Gallagher ranted (his own words) against another form of world domination, caused by ICANN and a trademarked-centered Domain Name System. In general, I thought, even the talks that had obvious marketing content showed some novel approaches to solving old problems. If someone is to come to dominate the world, the smart guys at this conference have just as much a right as anyone.