The Balkanization of BitTorrent

Mark Cuban has somewhat of a mixed record predicting BitTorrent’s future, having once suggested that nobody would ever download HD content over peer-to-peer networks. Obviously, he got that one wrong. But he does have a point when it comes to a growing obstacle to P2P becoming mainstream:

There are a ton of clients, with the number growing all the time. Although they work on basically the same source code and protocols, they all install and operate as if they had exclusive access.

Cuban argues that conflicts between different clients might turn users off BitTorrent completely. And he might just be right this time.

The competition amongst different BitTorrent vendors hasn’t been a big problem until recently. Vendors try to one-up each other’s feature set and memory footprint, but the clients’ main functionality has basically stayed the same. After all, BitTorrent is an open source protocol.

However, with the launch of BitTorrent-powered content platforms and various personal P2P solutions, vendors are pushing their software more aggressively. To exacerbate the situation, they’re now drawing new users who might not have the technical knowledge to deal with software conflicts.

Let’s have a look at the main players and their role in this development:

Azureus has been most aggressive about gearing people towards their own platform. Azureus’ features a Java web downloader that will override your browser’s MIME filetype settings – meaning that it will start Azureus to download content form Zudeo even if you have chosen another client as your default solution for Torrent downloads. To be fair: Zudeo does also feature traditional Torrent download links, but the Java downloader is clearly the more prominent feature.

BitTorrent’s Bram Cohen has stated that the company’s upcoming content platform will be open to all clients, but its new client won’t be open source anymore. BitTorrent’s Lily Lin told me last October that the company will maintain an open source reference implementation, but that “there will be an enhanced, closed-source version” to power “the new retail marketplace and for other technology implementations.”

Personal P2P vendors like Allpeers, Podmailing, and Pando are all based on BitTorrent, but are not interoperable. To be fair: Allpeers has announced that it will eventually enable traditional Torrent downloads. Podmailing seems to be one step further and is already thinking about interoperability.

There is a real danger that we will have a Balkanization of BitTorrent, with clients fighting over filetype associations and vendors introducing one proprietary feature after another. Think of the media player war, and the way you felt every time the RealPlayer changed all your default settings.

Of course, the media player war ended when people finally uninstalled all those rude clients. This time the conflict might be over even sooner: BitTorrent downloads continue to be dominated by content from rogue tracker sites. Torrent tracker admins have been banning misbehaving clients for years. So far their targets have mostly been clients who don’t contribute enough upload bandwidth. But I wonder how long it will take before some sites ban clients for a lack of interoperability or for messing with their user’s PCs?

Janko Roettgers is a Los Angeles-based journalist and book author. He is also the editor of P2P Blog.