BitTorrent lately has had tremendous success with Game of Thrones. But, the stigma of illegal content wouldn’t go away. The BitTorrent team is upset with this notion of associating it with illicit content downloads. As a technology, BitTorrent has existed for over a decade. It had the (mis)fortune of coming to life at a time when digital media was going through an exponential growth trajectory and Napster had demonstrated the power of peer-to-peer technologies. While Napster was specifically optimized for small files (songs really), BitTorrent was built to handle large files very efficiently. Just like Napster, BitTorrent rapidly grew into the go-to place for “ripping” content, only this time movies along with other types.
Digital Media And DRM
It is too bad that these technologies became the center of the illicit content sharing universe, because, fundamentally, the technology of peer-to-peer or more generally, distributed systems can be very powerful. This situation came to be partly because the media companies had not yet caught up to sound DRM techniques – digital media was in early stages after all and the media industry was being left out of breath by the rapid growth and all the different directions it was being pulled at that threatened it’s profit sustenance.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed in 1998 and it wasn’t until late 200x-s that companies had figured out how to impose effective DRM techniques. The political nightmare that it was, led to every media company having its own DRM solution with no interoperability whatsoever. Sony took the brunt of harsh criticism with the irrecoverable damage caused by their so-called DRM solutions that shipped with their CDs and ruined people’s computers, circa 2005. Apple, after having a proprietary DRM solution that got confused with proprietary formats (AAC was not proprietary, but the DRM that was wrapped around it was), quietly dropped it in 2009 and went to supporting DRM-free music audio and video files. Fast forward to today, DRM has become this annoying concept that got munged with and locked into user identities in a way that restrain us to pretend about who we are in order to share content even in a legal way. Put simply, we now often have to log into our accounts to have access to content on a particular device. And if the device does not support the accounts under question, tough luck. Or, if the device belongs to someone else and you just wanted to loan your content to them, tough luck (more or less, although you can lend books and such in a limited way).
Building A Product Vs Building A Technology
All said and done, we know Napster and BitTorrent as the vehicles through which illicit sharing of digital media grew to large extents.
Let’s separate the technology from its popular use cases. “Build and they will come” used to be a great web philosophy just around the time BitTorrent was gaining popularity. The reality is that the market finds the best use cases for different technologies, whether we like it or not. This is especially true if you didn’t build a product to begin with. If what you built was technology, prepare for the marktet telling you how and what it will be used for.
And that’s precisely what happened with BitTorrent. To be fair, Napster, to some extent tried building a product (it was a music sharing service). However, they didn’t see the product requirements through. It was more an example use case – or at least treated as such. In BitTorrent’s case, it really was just a technology. It is like saying – “TCP (or HTTP) has caused Internet to be filled with too much porn”. Well, except TCP wasn’t built as a business. BitTorrent was. And that makes all the difference.
Why Building A Product Matters
Building a product makes a huge difference. Even when you build a product, it is possible that the market figures out other uses for it. But if you never set out to build a product, it’s a big problem. Because then, you are spending all the time perfecting the technology for a product that doesn’t exist yet. Or, worse yet, building a business around an unknown product. Sure, one could claim “file sharing” was the service that BitTorrent built. But, unless you are working on an operating system or a device that is going to bundle file sharing, that’s not a real product. It means nothing to an end user – or worse, it may mean too many things. When the hack-savvy figure it out, the product can take a shape you did not really invent the technology for!
Sometimes, while focusing on building a product, we can close off a technology to other uses. Imagine if TCP was built just for FTP and we had to reinvent the transport when HTTP came along – obviously, that’s not ideal! It takes skill to build a product without compromising on the core strengths of the underlying technology. It takes even more skill to build a product and technology at the same time. But that’s what excellence is about!
So, as to BitTorrent’s rant about illegal content and them being just about the connectivity – well, they didn’t build a product! Hence, they now have to spend extra efforts to convince the world that their technology can go beyond the use case the world popularized it for! Sadly, this taint of illegal content has gone beyond BitTorrent to affect the phrase “peer-to-peer” at large. Even otherwise amazingly smart people don’t want to touch wide area p2p (to distinguish this from stuff like WiFi p2p) with a long pole. I’ve been at the receiving end of this, trying to preach to some of the most brilliant people I know, that distributed systems can be powerful and do much much more than illegal file sharing.
I know now that the way to get through is by building a product wrapped around it that harnesses the power of p2p in a way nothing else can. One of the most successful examples is PPLive, where p2p was used for a live broadcast of the Beijing Olympics to millions of users. At the end of the day, they shipped files on a p2p infrastructure (sounds like BitTorrent?!). But, it was nicely wrapped in a product that the users got right away!
So, have a technology and product vision and build a product. If a technology can have broad uses, pick a starting point and an initial product. If you don’t, be prepared to embrace what the market throws at you!