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BitTorrent gets a makeover

May 12, 2011 | 11:28 am

BT BitTorrent Inc. released a new version of its client software Thursday, offering a simpler way for people to find, download and share files -- including, for the first time, a way to share them with a select group of friends. It's a potential boon to consumers looking to send high-definition home movies or slide shows to far-flung family members. The gains are more limited, however, for Hollywood studios and other copyright holders.

The BitTorrent protocol speeds up the transmission of files by enabling users to download them from multiple other users simultaneously. That's made it the protocol of choice for file-sharers, particularly for bootlegged movies and song collections. It's a neutral technology, though, and the Hollywood studios made their peace years ago with BitTorrent Inc., which invented the protocol. The company also claims to make the most popular client software for using its protocol; according to Shahi Ghanem, its executive vice president and chief strategist, more than 1 billion copies of those clients have been downloaded, and more than 100 million people use them at least once a month.

On Thursday the company released a beta version of its new client, dubbed Project Chrysalis, designed to make BitTorrent easier to use for consumers and content creators. It's still a work in progress on both fronts, but it's a step forward in several ways.

The Project Chrysalis software streamlines the process of searching for a file, downloading and playing it by bringing all those functions into a single interface. That ease of use has been available in other BitTorrent clients, such as the one offered by Vuze, so in that sense BitTorrent Inc. is playing catchup. The Project Chrysalis client will also promote content that's available legitimately, enabling users to browse through "artist endorsed" videos, music and applications that copyright holders have authorized for sharing. But it also will let users promote the torrents of their choice -- legitimate or otherwise -- by emailing links to those files to their friends.

The most significant new feature is the ability to create personal channels. The previous client offered no way for people to upload files via BitTorrent; it only allowed people to share material they'd downloaded from someone else via the client. With the new version, a user can create invitation-only channels for sharing his or her files. Those who accept the invitation will automatically receive new files added to the channel.

The personal channels are private -- they can't be discovered through searches. There will also be an option for musicians, filmmakers and other creators to create searchable public channels, which would make those works broadly available.

The company is still working with the electronics industry on a BitTorrent certification program that will enable compliant TV sets and set-top boxes to play files downloaded by the new client and transmitted over a home network. That feature is expected to be available by year's end. Ghamen also said a future version of the software will offer to transcode files in the personal channels into one of the common formats that the client's built-in player and certified devices will support.

BitTorrent Inc. will help with the initial distribution of new files added to channels, doubling the download speed but raising the company's costs. For now, the personal channels will be available free, but it's not clear what the price might be once the client comes out of beta. When asked what the company might charge, Ghanem said, "The closer to free, the better." But he added, "There's often a tradeoff between free and speed."

The main missing piece, as far as content creators are concerned, is the ability to offer files for a fee. That's a critical omission. The only thing copyright owners can do now is ask for donations, which isn't enough to entice major content providers to use the platform. Ghanem said the company is developing support for four more business models in the public channels: pay-per-view, subscription, advertiser-supported and "freemium," which offers a sampling of content for free but requires payment for full access.

Until those tools are available, BitTorrent remains useful mainly to artists to build an audience that they can monetize in other ways -- for example, by selling them tickets to live performances -- and to illegal downloaders. New features such as the personal channels might make the software marginally more appealing to the latter group, but they don't seem to be nearly as great a threat to Hollywood as the many sites that let people create shared, invitation-only storage lockers online.

Adding pay-per-view and paid subscription tools could attract more copyright owners. But the major studios and record companies have been reluctant to put their content onto any platform that doesn't filter out pirated works (or at least tries to). That's a problem for BitTorrent Inc. because of the company's "open platform vision," which aims to support all types of content from all sources. Still, it's an unfortunate fact of life for content providers that they have to compete with bootlegged versions of their own creations. BitTorrent Inc., at least, is trying to make it easier for legitimate distributors to go head-to-head with the illegitimate ones.

Related:

Ultraviolet here, BitTorrent there

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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