written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 5/23/2011
Today file sharing is a common part of online life. People share files through chat, instant messengers, emails and file sharing networks like BitTorrent. But where did file sharing come from, and how has it become as popular as it is today?
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Beginning of a Revolution
File sharing is as much of the modern world as cell phones or cars, and while the term "file sharing" often conjures of images of illegal piracy, the term actually covers a general range of actions that most computers users undertake every day. Today's computers are file-sharing machines capable of sending and receiving files through email, the Internet, thumb drives, home networking and other routes.
But where did it all begin? Finding the answer to that question requires that we go back to the origins of the personal computer.
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The Early History of File Sharing
The history of file sharing began in 1971, when the first floppy disk drive became commercially available from IBM. At a size of 8 inches, this massive disk has a formatted storage capacity of just less than eighty kilobytes. This was effectively the first time that widespread file sharing could occur because it was the first time a format that allowed for relatively simple file transfer was available. In 1976, a company called Shugart Associates created the first 5 and a quarter inch floppy disk. Other companies adopted this standard and began to build five and a quarter inch drives of their own.
While floppy disks allow for sharing of files for those who could physically exchange media, Ward Christensen opened up a new gateway for file sharing in 1978 by creating the first online bulletin board system. This allowed users to share files online, although this was not part of the Internet as we know it today until the 1990s. Bulletin board systems were in fact accessed through phone lines, so users were often local.
In 1979 yet another method of online file sharing, Usenet, was created. Usenet was not created with file sharing as a goal, but it was a feature that users increasingly took advantage of as modem speeds increased.
The next major milestone in file sharing was the creation of FTP in 1985, or File Transfer Protocol. FTP allowed users to exchange files over a standard TCP/IP based network. It is still used today as one of the most popular methods of file sharing among both individuals and corporations. This was followed in 1988 by another still popular program, IRC. While IRC was created to host chat rooms, it allowed user-to-user file transfers, a feature many embraced.
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The Web Arrives
In 1991, the World Wide Web, at that stage a project lead by Tim Berners-Lee and supported by numerous people across the globe, became publicly available. It is doubtful that anyone involved with the project new just how important the project would become. Throughout the early 1990s, the World Wide Web grew to become the foundation of Internet navigation that we are familiar with today. In doing so, it has become the largest file sharing network ever created.
While the World Wide Web took hold, physical media was still strong as a method of file sharing. Floppy disks, now most commonly the three and a half inch format, we a very popular method of sharing files - both legal and illegal - between individuals. The prevalence of piracy through floppy disks promoted the now infamous "Don't Copy That Floppy" campaign, which ran in 1992.
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The MP3 File Sharing Controversy
While file sharing through floppy disks (and later CD-ROMs), FTP servers, and Usenet remained popular during the mid to late 1990s, the controversy which defined file sharing for this period surrounded one file format - the mp3. Websites like mp3.com and Audiogalaxy opened, allowing users to search for FTP servers hosting mp3 miles and later allowing users to download mp3s from the websites themselves. Napster was founded in 1999 and quickly became one of the most popular file sharing services in the history of computing. The music industry quickly worked against mp3 file sharing and by 2001 Napster was shut down and mp3.com had been sold to Vivendi Universal. Audiogalaxy caved to pressure from the RIAA and ceased operations in 2002. Today is operates in a limited form as a front for the music service Rhapsody.
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Windows Makes Local File Sharing Easy
While the controversy over sharing mp3 files put a stain on the reputation of file sharing Microsoft was busy making file sharing easier for home networks. Windows XP, released in 2001, included a feature called Simple File Sharing which made is easy for Windows users to file shares among computers on a local network. This feature was further refined in Vista and then Windows 7. Microsoft also released a home server operating system, called Windows Home Server, in 2007. This release makes it possible to buy a home server from a company like Dell or Lenovo and set it up with a home network of Windows machines and to use the Windows Home Server as a means of sharing files between all PCs in a home.
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Peer to Peer Takes up the Flag
While the mp3 file sharing controversy tended to revolve around specific websites and services, the foundations were at the same time being laid for peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent. These peer-to-peer networks are not centralized around any one server or cluster of servers. They exist purely as connections between hundreds or thousands of peers hosting or downloading a specific file. This makes them much more robust than any previous form of file sharing because there is no central server or service that, if it becomes inoperable or is shut down, causes all file sharing to cease.
Peer-to-peer networks of this type resulted in the creation of peer-to-peer file sharing websites. These websites allow users to find peers who are already sharing the file a user is looking for. Piracy again took center stage here in the form of a website called The Pirate Bay. Operated in Sweden, The Pirate Bay became a hub of activity for those sharing illegal files. In 2009 four men who ran The Pirate Bay - Peter Sunde, Fredik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm and Carl Lundstrom - were found guilty of assisting copyright infringement and sentenced to one year of prison.
Despite this, peer-to-peer networks remain popular. The Pirate Bay was one of literally thousands of peer-to-peer file search websites and others continue to operate.
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The Future of File Sharing
Peer-to-peer networks remain strong and are likely to remain strong for some time. Barring packet sniffing to search for peer-to-peer file transfers, a practice which remains legally problematic for Internet service providers, there is no way to crack down on these networks. There are also a fair number of users who legitimately transfer files through these networks, making it difficult for any broad action to be taken against them.
It is hard to say what the next revolution in file sharing will be, but whatever it is, it will probably create just as much controversy as file sharing has in the past.