Playing with BitTorrent’s new content portal this week was interesting. The site looks great, it’s easy to navigate, and while the library of available content is certainly large, it’s not exhaustive. The downloading experience is first rate, even if there isn’t a large swarm of peers — their pipes can definitely seed torrents at high speed, as contributor Janko Roettgers found in his review for the P2P Blog. Users aren’t even locked into a particular client, as I used my favorite, Azureus, with no problems.
The price point on the content isn’t too egregious — short form content like television shows sell for the same $1.99 you can find them for at the iTunes store. Movie rentals are $3.99, and some movies can also be purchased for $9.99. The rentals are maybe a dollar more than I’m used to paying at the local video store, and the flat rate for movies seems a tad unrealistic for some of the older titles. As a cynic, I’d have to agree with Rafe Needleman that those oldies appear to be available for the sake of boosting the overall number of offerings.
So what are the downsides? There are a number of them, and they almost all have to do with the digital rights management.
First of all, because the store uses Windows Media DRM, you can’t play back content on a Macintosh — even with the Flip4Mac plugin for QuickTime. It also means that you can’t play it on any number of media players for Windows, such as my personal favorite, VLC. You are stuck with using Media Player.
Secondly, because the authentication has to make a call back to the server to verify your rights, you won’t be able to start playback of downloaded content if you’re online. For instance, you might download a movie while waiting at the airport for some entertainment during the flight. But if you don’t make sure to confirm your license before you get on the plane, you’ll have to wait until you land and can get back online.
Thirdly, the actual authentication process is, to put it bluntly, a pain in the ass. Maybe I’m just naive and inexperienced with buying content for Media Player, but the first movie I rented required a full 10 minutes of waiting for the player to contact the server, entering my BitTorrent account login information, and then clicking through menu after menu. Though once the movie did finally start, the quality is very good.
If I was a regular user of the service, at some point I imagine I would want to do something with my content that’s strictly verboten — like burning a purchased movie to a DVD to clear space on my hard drive, or loading the movie onto a video iPod to watch during an evening commute for instance. In that case, I would start looking for ways to strip the DRM — which, after about a little over an hour of searching Google, downloading an application and following some instructions from copyfighter forums, is easy enough to do. So easy that I felt obligated to contact BitTorrent and let them know about it.
Honestly, I feel for BitTorrent. They deserve to turn their expertise into a viable business. But as long as the studios and labels demand DRM, and Microsoft keeps promising them that it will work, BitTorrent will never be able to compete with unauthorized downloads. I will remain a staunch proponent of the BitTorrent protocol as an efficient means for distributing large amounts of data — but as Napster proved years earlier, no good media distribution technology goes unpunished by content providers.