An All-Too-Brief History of File Sharing

It took 3 years for Ferdinand Magellan and the crew of the Victoria to circumnavigate the earth in 1519. Today, you can send a file of the entire history of Ferdinand Magellan’s adventure across the world in a few seconds. The rapid pace of technology has not only changed the way we travel but the way we manage and share information and files.


Edwin G. Siebels, a man most certainly obsessed with organization, invents a vertical filing system and the paper file folder, a protective cover for documents.

1898 – Early 1970s – Office Filing Systems

Previously businesses had relied on pigeonhole cabinets, filing documents in envelopes and placing them inside the small cubbies. Since offices in the ‘60s and ‘70s had filing cabinets, they could focus on more important things — like cigarette breaks and selecting a decent bourbon to complement a long day at the office.

By this time, files are having their moment. Available in styles like tri-tab, multi-colored, interior pockets and accordion, files are the number one choice for important document and photo storage at offices, hospitals, schools, businesses and government buildings. The downside is that file folders had a tendency to pile up on desks, waiting for file clerks, or even to get lost between car seats.

File “sharing” during this time consisted of physically handing a file folder, probably stained with the morning’s coffee, to another individual. This was an excellent way to interact with coworkers face-to-face.

The 1970s – Computer Hobbyists Party Down

Ward Christensen, a member of the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists’ Exchange (CACHE), creates a software program meant to mimic the functionality of a cork bulletin board. He calls this program the CBBS, or Computerized Bulletin Board System. Fellow computer enthusiast and club member Randy Seuss builds the hardware.

Serving as a messaging system between the few who owned and used computers in the 1970s, the program used an early file transfer protocol to send binary files through a modem, accessed by a single phone number. Users had to take turns accessing the system.


A mere one year later, Usenet is created by Tim Truscott and Jim Ellis. One of the first online communities, Usenet allowed users to post news, or messages, to newsgroups. While not intended to serve as a file sharing system, the functionality was one users took advantage of, transferring files through the network.

Back in the physical world, IBM releases 8-inch, then 5.25-inch floppy disks to the public, allowing users to save small files and programs to disks, which could be shared with fellow computer hobbyists.

The Mid-1980s – Finally, There’s Progress

New protocols, Kermit and Fidonet, are created to transfer files through a BBS or telnet. In 1985, the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is standardized, allowing users to access the same standard network protocol to transfer data securely between computers. It establishes several objectives: to promote file sharing, whether data or computer programs; to encourage the use of remote computers; to protect users from differentiations in hosts’ file storage systems; and to transfer data “reliably and efficiently”.

The 1990s – The Wild West of Internet & File Sharing

The world wide web is conceived, opening up computing and communications across the world. For the first time, users who aren’t computer hobbyists can send messages and share files across an easily navigable interface. Advances in data compression technology allow for MP3, AAC and MPEG file formats to be created for music and video files.

Both digital and physical files are shared and shared often. Software and computer corporations see undesirable effects of file sharing, mainly that people will hand off computer games and programs and music files willingly to not just friends, but complete strangers on the internet.

In the early ‘90s, sharing programs over 3.5-inch floppy disks becomes so widespread that the Software Publishers Association (SPA), the Educational Section Anti-Piracy Committee, and the Copyright Protection Fund, scratches their collective head and thinks, “what can we do to curtail this rampant computer program copying among the youngs?”

They decide to speak in the language of youth and create a stunning rap video called “Don’t Copy that Floppy,” featuring MC Double Def DP. While Mr. Double Def DP warns that copying floppies can lead to the end of computers as we know them(!), it, in fact, does not happen. It does, however, serve as a pretty great foreshadowing for the internet piracy that will follow in the coming decades.



Instant messaging is launched by America Online (AOL), allowing file transfer within messaging conversations.

File sharing site Napster uses peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing technology and an easy-to-use interface that indexed MP3 files and made them searchable. Napster didn’t host the MP3 files but instead helped connect users who shared the files from computer to computer. The glory days of free music quickly came to an end as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) file a lawsuit against Napster in 1999, quelling the free music revolution for the time.

The Early 2000s – The People Want An Easy Way to Share

File sharing as we know it today begins at the turn of the new century. File sharing programs pop up on the internet like heads on a hydra, heads that RIAA cannot vanquish quickly enough. Gnutella, Freenet, Kazaa, Morpheus and Audiogalaxy P2P networks appear but aren’t known for quick downloading times, since speed depends on the connection of the host computer.

BitTorrent, a protocol devised by Bram Cohen, provides a faster solution. Instead of directly connecting two computers, multiple computers are involved in downloading, with each computer sharing a piece of a file that a user has requested. Once all the pieces are downloaded, they are compiled into the complete file and saved to the user’s hard drive. BitTorrent becomes especially useful for transmitting large files.

The Late 2000s – The Great Sync

In the late 2000s, consumer cloud storage options like Amazon, Dropbox and iCloud began to appear. Not only do these platforms allow users to share files, but they provide file hosting and management from anywhere, on any device.

These cloud storage options are so convenient that employees eschew email, FTP servers and other more traditional means of sending files internally and externally. Businesses have to deal with unsecured documents, file sprawl and possible data breaches. As a result, it becomes apparent to companies that a secure way to share and manage files is necessary.

In 2009, SmartFile creates a cloud-based business file sharing and management solution that lets organizations set granular rules and permissions for users, maintain audit logs and use an interface that consumer cloud storage users are familiar with. Still, some companies find that they need these features behind their own firewall. As a result, SmartFile designs an on-premise appliance that connects to a client’s existing infrastructure and beefs up functionality for the users while enhancing security and compliance for I.T.

From the filing cabinets to the burgeoning cloud, the simple file folder has seen its home transform in stunning ways. What do you think is next for file management and file sharing? What features are missing from current offerings? Let me know in the comments below.

Oh, and if you want to try out our file sharing and management solution, check out the free trial, no credit card required.

SmartFile is a business file mangement platform that gives you more control, compliance and security.