Peer-to-peer (P2P) computing is beginning to make waves -- and not just because of the Napster courtroom drama pitting free-music aficionados against record company executives.

Though cynics may view P2P as just another flash in the IT pan, there are signs that it might be different. Some even see unique applications for P2P emerging in state and local government.

P2P Piquing Interest

In February, OReilly & Associates, the publishing company behind hundreds of computer books, hosted one of the first P2P networking conferences. The company is planning a second conference for September in Washington, D.C.

"I became interested in peer-to-peer because I felt that the focus on copyright infringement with Napster was blinding people to a real technical groundswell of interest in the implications of P2P networks," said Tim OReilly, owner and CEO of OReilly & Associates. "I wanted to raise the visibility of some of the P2P technologies that I saw catching on, and take some of the attention away from the copyright implications of Napster and focus it on the technical implications."

Though it took Napster to make peer to peer a household word, some companies have been on the P2P bandwagon since 1990.

Intel developed an in-house P2P network called NetBatch to turn idling PCs into computing powerhouses. As a result, the company was able to divert computing jobs away from expensive mainframe computers. Company officials estimate that over the last 10 years, Intel saved a half billion dollars as a result of not having to continually purchase mainframes.

Another popular use of P2P in the corporate world involves transforming PCs from little islands of knowledge into an enterprise-wide data repository by linking them together -- a Napster-like situation in which the PCs extract information (rather than music files) directly from one another.

"I see P2P as being such a broad area that it will have impact across the entire computer industry," OReilly said. "Its important to think of P2P in that way, rather than as a market segment. What is really important about P2P is that it is a recognition of the thinking that makes the Internet central as the development platform, instead of something that you add on to a PC-centric model."

This is where Napster comes in, he said, because its an application that assumes everybody is connected to the Net and that those PCs are available as a resource instead of simply being connected to a server.

"I think of P2P as being about network computing more than about file sharing," he said, adding that while P2P will make file sharing easier, the technology also holds promise for groupware, distributed computation and Web services.

"This is the idea that we break the boundaries of the browser paradigm, and we start to simply use resources on other computers as part of our programs," he explained. "The P in P2P becomes program to program."

P2P also shows promise for linking businesses more closely to their customers or other businesses.

"What we hear from every business customer that we talk to is: We use our extranet or our portal to tailor some customized information feeds to our best partners and customers, and we also give them some access to our system so they can check inventory. What we want to do now is to expose our people to those important folks on the outside," said Andrew Mahon, director of strategic marketing of Groove Networks, a P2P startup.

Although some of those companies experiment with filtered e-mail, instant messaging or voice over IP, he said, once they see how Groove works, they want to integrate the P2P technology with their Web