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Microsoft plans to 'embrace and extend' peer-to-peer file sharing technology with a Napster-style system of its own.

Codenamed Farsite, the program is currently little more than a research project, according to a ZDNet US story. The newswire seems content with M$' line that the code will probably make it into the commercial arena, but we're not convinced.

Essentially, Farsite follows the true peer-to-peer mode of Gnutella rather than Napster's approach. Farsite lets PC talk unto PC, without the need for a central server to act as an intermediate directory, as is the case with Napster.

The Farsite developers' focus is on corporate networks and want to develop a system capable of allowing around 100,000 machines connected on what the research team calls a "serverless network" to exchange files quickly with each other.

All nice and techie, but let's revisit the phrase "serverless network". Now one of the application areas in which a certain open source operating system that competes with Microsoft's own offerings is doing rather well is file sharing. So it might well be to the Windows maker's benefit to be able to bypass said systems using client-based peer-to-peer sharing technology.

That's one use of peer-to-peer. Another is the approach Napster has taken: media sharing. This is likely to become a big part of the digital music market if not all of it, and it's hard to see Microsoft not wanting a share, a very big share of this emerging business. Right now, the music industry is broadly hostile to the technology, but that may change, as shown by Bertelsmann's deal with Napster.

It makes sense, then, for Microsoft to have the appropriate technology ready just in case. It can certainly afford to develop the code and risk it never being used.

Napster is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of the music industry - too much has been said by both parties for a true reconciliation - but if the world's biggest record labels begin to realise the potential of the generic peer-to-peer concept, they might be open to approaches from a company that can build its sharing software into the most widespread desktop OS there is. Tie it in with the near-ubiquitous Windows Media Player and Microsoft's Reciprocal-derived royalty payment management software, and you've the basis for a media delivery system that can work with both download and peer-to-peer subscription services... ®

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