Cnet News reports that BitTorrent (the company) is launching an online movie rental store today. As with Zudeo, a similar service from the creators of the Azureus bittorrent (the protocol) client, the movie files will reach viewers via tit-for-tat peer-to-peer networking. The question is whether consumers will bite at the chance to lend BitTorrent their bandwidth.
It’s one thing to download a movie or song directly to your computer from, say, Apple or one of the other online media stores. But bittorrent systems are different: They use your bandwidth to send the audio or video files to other computers. The result is less bandwidth fees for the movie store because it doesn’t have to pay for every byte sent to a customer.
BitTorrent tells Cnet its service is a good deal for consumers because it’s fast:
Developed in 2001, BitTorrent’s open-source (sic) distribution system was designed to help transfer large files over the Internet. BitTorrent allows a single file to be broken into small fragments that are distributed among computers. People then share pieces of the content with one another.
So how fast can BitTorrent deliver the same movie?
“Depending on the connection speed,” Navin said, “how about we say faster than a pizza delivery?”
It is an open question, though, whether downloads will be any faster. To begin with, direct distributors like Apple buy bandwidth in bulk from providers all around the world and employ speedy content distribution systems. Their files are already distributed from high-bandwidth points that are near, in terms of network speed and capacity, their customers’ computers. While it is true, as a BitTorrent flack notes, that direct services can slow down under heavy loads, this doesn’t happen much in practice because it’s not hard for these services to provision bandwidth to meet all but the most extreme loads. Apple’s iTunes store, for example, bogged down around Christmas but has otherwise been fairly speedy.
Second, the “long-tail” effect cuts against bittorrent’s alleged strengths in movie delivery. Files that are widely shared benefit the most from bittorrent’s distribution model (and save the media store the most money on bandwidth); in bittorrent-speak, the more “seeders” a file has, the faster its transfer rate it likely to be. But less-popular films–those residing in the long tail–won’t get this boost. It’s really neat that BitTorrent has “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” but downloading it probably isn’t going to be much faster than downloading a movie from iTunes or anywhere else unless the software leaves your computer “seeding” for days at a time, eating up your bandwidth in the process.
Third, in many cases, the speed limit is set by the downloader’s Internet connection. Bittorrent can’t pump more bytes through a narrow pipe than any other means of distribution
Network protocols are more than just technical things; they’re also, in a sense, social. Bittorrent works best in a community that values sharing sharing as a social norm and whose users are sympathetic to content distributors. Open source projects, for instance, frequently use bittorrent to distribute their files; their users know they’re giving back to the project by “seeding” those files to others. Similarly, bittorrent is popular in piracy circles, where social and technical norms mandate and reward sharing (e.g., via “share ratios“).
But the BitTorrent movie service isn’t a community–it’s a store. Blockbuster doesn’t ask me to deliver movies to my neighbors when I pick up one for myself, and if it did, I’d want a big price break.
BitTorrent’s prices for movie rentals are comparable to what Blockbuster charges, and its TV shows, which you can keep, seem to match Apple’s prices. The difference is that Apple doesn’t leech on your bandwidth for hours or days after you download.
What Internet broadband providers do about media stores that seek to compete against them while pushing the cost of distribution onto their shoulders (via all-you-can-eat broadband plans) is anyone’s guess–though one can guess what they’d like to do. How consumers will feel about handing over their bandwidth is another matter entirely.
So BitTorrent may need to tweak its pricing model, but it would have a greater incentive to do so if broadband providers could charge it back for the extra network resources it’s using. A commercial service using the bittorrent protocol shifts costs without creating much additional value, such as better networks and more bandwidth to consumers. Making it pay for what it uses just seems fair.