Stephane Herry says that he founded his private file-sharing network GigaTribe out of frustration at not being able to share files with his friends on Kazaa. Every time he searched for a file that he knew a friend had uploaded, he saw only similar files uploaded by strangers.
Why not, Herry thought, create a peer-to-peer (P2P) application that permitted only trusted sources to share files? Such a network would be far more secure, because you’d be sharing files exclusively with people you know and trust--not with complete strangers, some of whom may wittingly or unwittingly be spreading viruses.
Herry’s idea is proving to be popular. Some of the biggest names in public peer-to-peer file sharing now offer private alternatives. In its latest release, venerable file-sharing client LimeWire now allows users to share files privately with contacts that it pulls from Google or LiveJournal contact lists. Azureus Vuze, a popular BitTorrent client, added a FriendBoost feature to speed torrent downloads by sharing them within a group of trusted users.
In the past few years, private file sharing has evolved, steadily improving in speed, security, and functionality. Depending on what you're looking for, you can probably find a software product or Web app that’s perfectly suited to help you and your friends (or coworkers) share anything from spreadsheets to home movies legally, safely, and privately.
We took a look at four applications that promise secure, efficient file sharing among private groups: QNext, GigaTribe, 2Peer, and LogMeIn's Hamachi.
File sharing is just one of the features offered by QNext. It's primarily designed to serve as an integrated communications suite, with IM, voice, and video-chat components. But it also allows you to share files securely--with no size restrictions--and it has special photo and music capabilities as well. Finally, QNext even lets you gain remote access to your computer through a standard Web browser.
Installation and set up are painless. You simply download the software (QNext is available from PC World's Downloads library), install it, and create an account--and you can begin adding IM accounts and creating folders of files that you want to share. Network configuration and input device detection--for hardware such as microphones and cameras--is automatic. To add friends, you enter your log-in data for popular instant messaging systems like AIM and Google Talk, and then ask your friends to download, install, and register for QNext.
Once you have one or more friends enrolled in your list of QNext contacts, you can set up shared folders through “zones.” Click File, Share Content to open the QNext explorer. Then click Share Folders and Files and drag and drop the data you want to share. You can set up secure sharing by adding only QNext contacts, or you can make the files publicly available to anyone with a Web browser by selecting 'Broadcast to Web browsers'.
The interface of the application opens with a vertical list of contacts from the IM accounts that you added during initial setup. You gain access to more features, options, and settings by clicking the blue monitor icon for the Explorer. In the Explorer you set up groups of shared files and folders, as well as permissions for access--one folder could be public, another could be for one specific user. The Explorer is also where you manage other settings, including chat, video, and audio. From there, you can set up shared files and folders, and browse and search data that others have shared with you.
One particularly nice aspect of QNext is that other users needn't have the application installed in order to receive messages, shared files, or photos, or even to listen to music streamed from your shared library. QNext's servers make much of your content available publicly via browsers, if you wish, so you can simply send a URL over IM or e-mail. If you want the transfers to be private and secure, however, both parties must have QNext installed.
You'll also need to have QNext turned on and running if you or your contacts need to access the data or use the machine via remote access. This is great if you have a machine at home or at the office that is online around the clock anyway. If you use a laptop, turning off your machine, letting it lapse into sleep or standby mode, or losing your Internet connection will cut off anyone who is connected to a download or stream from one of your music playlists.
Another potential bottleneck is bandwidth. Contacts can access files and streams only as fast as your machine can upload--and since most personal users on networks have limited upstream bandwidth, simultaneously downloading or streaming more than a few files music from your machine will quickly push it to the limit.
QNext is a free download available for Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. Versions for the iPhone, the iTouch, and Google Android-powered smartphones are currently in the beta stage.