File sharing has long been a popular use of the Internet. I remember sitting at my laptop and asking a friend to name a song, and then seeing if I could download it off of Napster and play it before he could find the cd on the shelf, put it into the player and play the song himself. I often won those competitions.
The old Napster is long gone, but was of course replaced with many other P2P networks. Today, a significant portion of Internet traffic is comprised of files being moved over bittorent, a popular and completely decentralized way of sharing files.
Bittorent, though, requires some basic technical knowledge and is neither anonymous nor safe. The RIAA and MPAA routinely monitor these networks and attempt to collect IP addresses of computers they believe are involved in the transfer of copyrighted files. And bittorent is notorious for transferring files that (sometimes) contain viruses, spyware and other malware.
Enter private file sharing networks. WASTE was released in 2003 and allowed people to create private networks among trusted friends. Files could be shared without worrying about malware or prying eyes. All that was needed was trust among the members of a particular network. The downside of WASTE was that setting up and participating in a network was not trivial to do. Private networks did not take off and achieve mass use and adoption.
A new crop of services has popped up recently to make it much easier to share files with a private network of friends and other trusted people. Allpeers, Zapr, Pando and Exaroom are all fairly recent entrants.
Allpeers, which is apparently launching imminently (but is not live as of the time of this post), is a Firefox plugin that uses bittorent technology to complete file transfers. You add friends to your AllPeers network and then send and receive files from them. The interface is intuitive, and there are no restrictions on file sizes or amounts transferred. AllPeers is incredibly easy to use, allows transfers of files and/or folders, and works on any machine that you can run Firefox. We also stressed tested the product by transferring very large files and shutting down Firefox and then the computer itself during tranfer. AllPeers picked up where it left off as soon as Firefox was reopened, which is great.
Like the others, AllPeers is free. But, unlike Pando and Zapr, AllPeers completes file transfers without the need to confirm via email first. However, all sides of the transfer must have AllPeers installed on Firefox.
Zapr is a downloadable application that looks and feels a lot like an instant messaging client. You can drag files into Zapr and send them to an email address or Zapr username. The recipient(s) receives an email with a link to the file. Clicking on the link initiates a download of the file through the browser. There are no limits on file size.
Zapr is not using bittorent on the backend and does not upload the file to its servers before transfer. The file is transferred directly from one computer to the other, and requires that the sender be online for the file to transfer properly. This also means that if a user shares a file with 100 people, that will trigger 100 distinct downloads from that user’s computer which will hog bandwidth and very likely crush individual transfers. For that reason, Zapr is not really a private sharing network, but really an easy way to initiate a one-to-one transfer. We also had problems restarting a transfer when it was stopped. Also, anyone who gets access to the link can download the file.
Zapr is built on the .NET platform and therefore is only available for use on Windows machines.
All in all, we like the Zapr user interface but its current limitations make it significantly less useful than AllPeers or Pando. Of note is the fact that, of the four services, Zapr is the only one that doesn’t require recipients to have the Zapr software installed on their computer.
Pando, based in New York, recently reached 1 million downloads of its software. Pando is a desktop application that runs on Windows or Mac machines. Users drag files into the application and tell it the email address of who to send it to. Multiple recipients are fine, and Pando can transfer folders or files.
Pando has an intelligent, bittorent based back end. When you send a file, the first thing Pando does is upload it to its servers. Recipients receive the file directly from the sender as well as the Pando servers, and if there are multiple recipients then the bittorent efficiency effect really kicks in as all recipients also become senders.
Recipients receive an email and initiate a transfer by opening a small attachment (you must have Pando to download the file).
Pando is an efficient and user friendly service. We’d like to see it initiate transfers without the need to click on an email attachment, and the addition of buddy lists would be a good way to ease the annoyance of re-typing the email address of someone you often share with.
San Francisco based exaroom, which launched in late July 2006, is a Windows only service that requires a download. Once installed, a user can share files within their My Documents folder with other exaroom users. New shared files are viewable through the application interface, and downloads are completed via the browser download manager.
Exaroom is a good way to make your My Documents folder permanently sharable with certain friends, but the lack of features compared to the other services make it a less useful product.
All four of these services are useful tools for sharing large files with a trusted network.
Each is useful for different goals. However, a popular service that we excluded from this review, yousendit (profiled here), also solves the basic need to transfer a large file to another person or group of people. If you are looking to create a long term sharing network, Allpeers is the way to go. It has platform flexibilty (works on Windows, Linux and Mac), allows creation of buddy lists that allow easy multiple transfers over time, and does not require the use of email to confirm file downloads.
Thanks to Nick Gonzalez for research assistance on this post.