File-sharing is the new email
As our digital photos and videos get bigger and bigger, email can't handle the load. Three stealthy startups say file-sharing is the answer.
By Om Malik, Business 2.0 Magazine senior writer

SAN FRANCISCO (Business 2.0 Magazine) - Thanks to record-label lawsuits and spyware scares, file-sharing has a bad reputation among consumers. But three startups are nevertheless betting that they can harness the technology to solve a growing problem: Conveniently sharing photos and home videos with friends and family.

The three oufits that are exiting stealth mode this week -- New York-based Pando Networks, Perenety of Sunnyvale, California, and WiredReach of Austin, Texas -- have developed products that aim to supplant email for sharing digital photo albums, home videos, and other weighty files.

Digital cameras and camcorders are fast increasing the resolution they capture, which in turn leads to larger files. But Internet service providers typically block users from sending files bigger than 10 megabytes to prevent large email attachments from clogging up their systems. For email recipients, it's no easier: Even though free services like Yahoo (Research) Mail and Google's (Research) Gmail now offer gigabytes of storage, it's easy to run through that limit with just a few photo albums or videos.

"Most of us attach dozens of photos to an email and send them to our friends and family," says Pando co-founder Yaron Samid. "It is quite a big hassle, and you are never sure if the email gets to the person you are sending."

The big picture

There are websites like Flickr and YouTube, of course, where users can post photos and video -- but those are designed for material you want to share with the world, not just a few friends or family members. Photo-sharing websites like Kodak (Research) EasyShare Gallery, Snapfish, and Shutterfly all share a common flaw: The need to upload photos to a Web server, a process which just gets lengthier and more prone to error the bigger the files get.

That's where file sharing comes in handy. Unlike email or website uploads, which have to go through a central server, file sharing connects two computers directly for more efficient content transfer -- what's known as "peer-to-peer networking."

Peer-to-peer networking came to the forefront in the late 1990s when Napster (Research) made it relatively easy for far-flung users to share music files. Napster drew the ire of the music industry and went bankrupt, only to be replaced by the more exotically named Kazaa, Gnutella, and other networks. (A reborn Napster took the old company's name, but doesn't use file-sharing technology.)

File-sharing got its outlaw reputation because the technology made it easier to download large files, but difficult to trace where digitally pirated movie and music came from.

This new wave of file-sharing startups isn't aiming to share music or Hollywood movies, however. It's just using the technology to speed and simplify the problem of moving a large file from computer A to computer B.

Pando's Samid founded the company in December 2004 with Laird Popkin, a former director of digital technology for Warner Music (Research), and Robert Levitan, the cofounder of media website iVillage, now owned by GE's NBC Universal unit. The three started developing Pando's application, which lets users drag and drop files into a "package" which they can then email to friends.

Rather than containing the photo and video files themselves, Pando's package just contains information about the location of the files. The recipient gets a link to download Pando's software, which begins downloading the files as soon as it's installed.

Pando uses the same technology found in BitTorrent, a relatively new file-sharing system that's been gaining popularity among the geek set, but which still remains beyond the grasp of the average computer user, according to Samid.

"Our goal was to bring the power of BitTorrent to the mainstream user who just wants to email Mom some heavy photos and videos," he says. So far, the plan seems to be working. The company has more than 315,000 users, with 6,000 signing up every day. They share 15 terabytes of data on an average day.

Preventing piracy

To keep Pando from being used by music and movie pirates, Pando has restricted the number of people to whom you can send a Pando package, and limited the file size to one gigabyte, enough space to hold about 45 7-megapixel photos.

While Pando has tried to keep its application close to the email-attachment model, Perenety has modeled its Shooter application after Skype, the voice-over-Internet-protocol outfit which was bought by eBay (Research), says co-founder Xavier Casanova.

It may seem like an unlikely comparison, but Perenety, which is now conducting a limited test of Shooter, is emulating Skype's one-to-one connectivity and buddy-list features. Just as Skype connects two PCs directly for a call and tells you which people are available to talk, Perenety connects PCs directly for speedier file transfers and lets you know when your contacts share new files.

"We have developed this technology so that it is optimized for one-to-one file transfers and sharing," says Casanova. Every time a friend uploads new photos into Shooter, people who have previously received files from that person get an alert, just like you get when a buddy signs on to your instant-messaging network. Like Pando, it has a one-gigabyte file-size limit.

WiredReach's BoxCloud service, which has yet to launch publicly, also models itself after popular instant-messaging software. Unlike Pando and Perenety, it won't have limits on file size or the number of people you can share a file with.

Of the three startups vying to replace email, Pando has the biggest lead in users, even in its limited beta-test phase. That suggests that keeping the process of sharing large files as close as possible to the familiar experience of sending email attachments may be the smartest way to go.

One thing's clear: Unless we all agree to ditch our digital cameras and stop promising to send Mom pictures, this problem isn't going away anytime soon. Top of page

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