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Consumer Electronics Show: Ultraviolet here, BitTorrent there

January 7, 2011 |  7:10 am

BitTorrent Certified This week's Consumer Electronics Show has been a coming-out party for Ultraviolet, the online video-distribution platform backed by a consortium of major Hollywood studios, device makers, retailers and service providers. But while leaders of the consortium -- the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem -- were outlining their plans in a packed conference room at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Thursday afternoon, Bram Cohen was privately demonstrating a new streaming technology based on the BitTorrent file-sharing protocol in a Vegas hotel suite.

The company Cohen co-founded, BitTorrent Inc., also announced Thursday a partnership with Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute, an influential tech R&D center, to develop standards for playing back BitTorrent downloads on a wide range of consumer electronics. It's conceivable that when Ultraviolet-compatible devices hit the market (probably in 2012), some will also bear the logo, "BitTorrent Certified."

That, in a nutshell, is the challenge faced by backers of Ultraviolet. The platform, which the studios hope will breathe life into sluggish sales of downloadable films and TV shows, has to compete with file-sharing software and hosting sites that let people download or stream unauthorized copies of just about anything for free.

Ultraviolet promises a dramatic improvement over the first generation of download-to-own services. But the developments at BitTorrent Inc. show that file-sharing applications are advancing too. And while UV starts from an installed base of zero, more than 20 million people around the world use BitTorrent daily, and more than 100 million use it monthly, BitTorrent Inc. announced earlier this week.

It's important to note that BitTorrent Inc. -- one of several companies that distributes software based on the BitTorrent file-sharing protocol Cohen developed years ago -- doesn't actively encourage piracy, even though that's what most people use the technology for. In fact, the new version of its software, due this spring, will promote more prominently the content that some (typically non-Hollywood) filmmakers and recording artists are distributing via BitTorrent.

A bar across the top of the screen will offer links to applications or channels that content distributors will use to market their files, BitTorrent spokeswoman Allison Wagda said. Anyone can develop and offer the apps, she said, through the company's open platform.

Wagda also noted the success that filmmakers behind "The Yes Men Fix the World" and "Pioneer One" have enjoyed by distributing their works through BitTorrent. But while those filmmakers were able to collect thousands of dollars in donations from fans online, they weren't able to charge for their files -- the company's software doesn't have a payment mechanism, at least not yet.

The streaming technology Cohen has developed isn't intended to compete with Netflix's online movie service. Instead, it's meant for live broadcasting. "For people who don't have the ability to broadcast to a large audience by traditional means, this is it," Wagda said. "And it's free."

Like BitTorrent downloads, the streams work by having each recipient retransmit the bits that flow into their computer to other viewers. Unlike more conventional online broadcasting approaches that build up a lengthy buffer before playing a file, the BitTorrent live streams promise delay times of about 5 seconds, Wagda said.

The technology could help producers slash the cost of streaming a live broadcast of an event, or simply make it possible for a parent to stream a child's soccer game to scattered family members. But it's easy to imagine not-so-reputable uses of the technology -- for example, live rebroadcasting of football games that were blacked out in their home markets. As with BitTorrent in general, the public will determine whether it's used predominantly in authorized or unauthorized ways.

The BitTorrent certification effort has the same goal as Ultraviolet: to help assure people that the content they download will work on certified devices. The difference is in the nature of the problem each is trying to solve.

UV logo For Ultraviolet, the issue is how to stop unauthorized copying and sharing of movies and TV shows while still allowing people to watch what they buy on the device of there choice, in or out of the home. Its platform -- which includes interoperable electronic locks, a common file format and an online rights locker -- promises far greater flexibility than the major studios were willing to allow before -- for example, each UV download can be played on up to 12 devices registered by the user, regardless of their location, and it can be copied from device to device (assuming both are compliant with the UV standard).

For BitTorrent, the problem has been the wide variety of formats used by file-sharers. The goal of the certification effort is to make sure that any file downloaded through the new version of the company's new software will play on any certified device. "Consumers shouldn't need to differentiate between codecs, file formats, bit rates and other technology jargon," Shahi Ghanem, the company's chief strategist, said in a statement. "Content playback should just work, regardless of content type or source."

Related items:

Ultraviolet digital movie downloads to launch in mid-2011

BitTorrent users spend money too

DECE turns Ultraviolet

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.