Utilizing Intelligence at the Network?s Edge
By Bryan Morgan, Tue May 01 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Mobile Peer-to-Peer applications introduce a new kind of network. Here's how they work, and what applications to look out for.

In the year 2000, just as the first frenzied New Economy wave was about to come crashing down, two technologies generated enough hype to rise above the hoopla. These two technologies, wireless data and peer-to-peer (P2P) computing, now promise to merge - creating a new breed of applications that, until now, were only dreamed of in science fiction novels.

For those not familiar with the ins and outs of P2P, it represents a new way of thinking about application architectures and web services. The more traditional mode of application architecture popularized over the past 20 years (known as client/server computing) served to relegate devices on the edge of the network (such as personal computers, PDAs, and mobile phones) to purely client status.

While the traditional client/server model makes sense for many applications given the centralized nature of enterprise data centers, it fails miserably at tasks such as community information sharing, distributed computing (also known as grid computing), and transient node utilization. At a high level, the P2P model excels in these types of applications because it places the emphasis on utilizating all of the available resources on both ends.

In addition, P2P allows all participants to become both clients and servers – allowing the masses to democratically utilize massive amounts of distributed computing power and storage.

While many of us are familiar with revolutionary P2P file-sharing technologies such as Napster, other P2P applications are also being developed that offer the potential of unprecedented access to information and processing power from mobile devices. Here are a few examples:

JabberCE - Among the most obvious of P2P apps is instant messaging and this Jabber client for Windows CE supports interoperation with AOL IM, ICQ, IRC, and MSN Chat. Less known, but even more interesting, is the fact that Jabber can be used as a messaging transport for any type of XML-formatted data.

Sun Microsystems' Jini - Jini network technology provides a simple infrastructure for delivering services in a network and for creating spontaneous interaction between programs that use these services regardless of their hardware/software implementation. An example of a Jini implementation would allow your PDA to dynamically load print drivers to a laser printer as you entered an office so that your device is ready to print when you are. The combination of both Jini and Bluetooth has tremendous potential.

SmartPeer - This application can reside on a mobile device and within a network appliance connected through the Internet to one or more inventory or point-of-sale systems. A query from a SmartPeer-equipped mobile device could receive asynchronous results after one or more SmartPeer appliances have searched applicable inventory systems.

Pocit Labs BlueTalk - BlueTalk supports the creation of ad-hoc networks between users and services via Bluetooth. The commercial application will be available for both PocketPC and EPOC devices in the fall of 2001.

Roku Platform - The Roku Access and Share products use the PC as the focal point of a distributed information architecture. The platform uses the PC as a hub to aggregate information, from which multiple mobile devices can access it when convenient or required.

Not as well-defined, yet perhaps even more certain, is the eventual fusion of P2P applications and wireless personal area networking technologies such as Bluetooth and 802.11b.

One obvious application would be the oft-cited mobile commerce example of purchasing goods, such as books, using your mobile phone. Your device instantly connects to the local network as you enter the bookstore and interchanges data with the bookstore’s register as you checkout. Your personal payment information (credit card info, for instance) is exchanged using a P2P app with the two devices both acting as clients and servers.

Likewise, personal preferences stored on your device could interact with passing storefronts via an intelligent P2P agent to notify you of pertinent items on sale inside.

Inevitably, just as we saw wireless become a victim of its own hype over the past year, P2P is now also suffering from a backlash of sorts. Witness the recent legal travails of upstarts such as Napster and it is clear that P2P applications can be built to push both technological and legal boundaries.

Taken as a whole, however, the best P2P applications offer the potential to level the playing field, whether that be for an end user, a distributed cluster of personal computers, or mobile devices roaming in and around the network’s edge.

Bryan Morgan was the founder of WirelessDevNet.com (The Wireless Developer Network) and is currently an independent writer and software developer. He is a columnist for Wireless Internet magazine and is also a regular contributor to WirelessWeek.com and InformIT.com.