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Rant: P2P Is More than Cheap Bandwidth

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2007 has been the year of the P2P CDNs. Akamai bought Red Swoosh, BitTorrent started to showcase their DNA streaming solution, and Pando inked a deal with NBC to P2P-power the distribution of shows like Law & Order through the network’s NBC Direct download service. Combining traditional CDNs with P2P makes a lot of sense from a business perspective, but unfortunately it doesn’t make the platforms themselves any better.

In other words: Just because something uses P2P technology doesn’t mean it won’t suck. Platforms that suck won’t find any users, and platforms without a solid user base can’t leverage the potentials of P2P. Call it Joost’s Law if you will. So how do you stop things from sucking? By acknowledging that P2P is about more than just saving a few bucks.

Granted, combining P2P with CDNs seems like a great idea on paper. Use the upload capacity of your customers for content distribution, and you’ll get higher scalability and lower costs in return. But why would users want to help a company distribute its movies? Why would they install one specific client or browser plug-in if there are dozen others out there that promise pretty much the same thing? And why wouldn’t people just continue to get their content from sites like The Pirate Bay?

Platforms like Joost and the BitTorrent download store have taken the first steps in the right direction. Free, ad-supported content offered through a convenient streaming solution that doesn’t make you wait for hours before you can watch your downloaded movie of TV show — that’s a start to compete with the pirates. But piracy isn’t just about free content, and competing with it doesn’t just mean that you need to lower your own price point through advertising and bandwidth-saving P2P technology.

One often overlooked reason torrent sites are so immensely popular is that they offer their users a sense of community. People love to comment on the content they are downloading, they love to chit-chat in forums and comment sections, and they’re more that willing to contribute with bandwidth and exclusive uploads if they feel at home on a site.

Take the music site Oink for example, which was one of the biggest P2P stories of 2007. The music industry succeeded in shutting down Oink in October, and the press releases of the industry made it sound like Oink was a haven for pre-release piracy that operated under a shield of an exclusive, invite-only membership system.

That’s certainly one way to look at it, but the truth is that keeping sites like Oink private isn’t really more that a gesture when it comes to shielding them from anti-piracy organizations. In fact, invite-only torrent communities get infiltrated all the time. But the whole process of invite-only initiations fosters a sense of community that you can’t find on any commercial download site.

Even public sites like The Pirate Bay, with millions of users that don’t even bother to register for a user name, tend to have strong communities with multiple layers that are held together by a few dedicated uploaders, a bigger circle of people who comment, and finally all those users who willingly contribute their own bandwidth to keep things going, becoming implicit participants every time they download anything.

Capturing this sense of community is the key to making P2P CDNs work. Engage your users, and they’ll be more than happy to support your platform. But getting there means that you have to give up on the notion that P2P is just a technology, and embrace the social aspects of file-sharing.

8 Responses to “Rant: P2P Is More than Cheap Bandwidth”

  1. Platforms like Joost and the BitTorrent download store have taken the first steps in the right direction. Free, ad-supported content offered through a convenient streaming solution that doesn’t make you wait for hours before you can watch your downloaded movie of TV show — that’s a start to compete with the pirates.

    My Joost story. I had zero interest in it. Then I found out it was offering “Standby For Action,” a recent special documentary about Gerry Anderson that ran in the UK. I couldn’t find it via torrent or P2P. So, I went and got the Joost software and got to see it. That said, still looking for torrent or P2P of it! (Which I do not see as piracy as it will never run in the US nor be offered for sale. And Joost has already had my eyeballs during their ads, so money was made.) Moral: Stop offering the same crap as the domestic TV market! (This is also why I’ve subscribed to several micro-series on Veoh. Let ABCCBSNBCFOXCW sink!)

  2. The problem with offering incentives is that big Hollywood films still operate under a “window” system and due to contracts with talent that take their lead from agreements with the guilds studios can not offer incentives that could infringe on a window. Translated: You can’t offer a FREE movie for watching a commercial first if the film you want to offer is still in the DVD or Pay time slot and is not yet in the regular TV window.

    Studios and Networks are trying to figure out business models for online delivery without cannibalizing their current revenue streams. This was a big concern with DVD as well. Remember before DVDs VHS movie rentals were big business and the studios didn’t want to lose that revenue but when DVDs started selling and the studios were taking in $10-$12 per DVD, DVD sell through became the cash cow for studios.

    Just like the opening of a Hollywood Hot Spot/Night Club once the studios have the margins figured out they will also figure out a way to create a line at the P2P door so that when the doors open there are enough hot looking sexy bandwidth carrying viewers there to get the service launched and running smoothly. I’m sure they will try and figure out a way to keep out the riffraff as well but that brings up the problem of Net Neutrality.

    If you are opening up a Hot Hollywood Night Club you pay the city for your business permits and the state for your liquor license but you don’t have to pay anyone for the use of the streets, roads and freeways because they are government owned and covered by taxes. But with P2P, the Freeways may be free but the On and Off ramps are controlled by ISPs and they have businesses to run and share holders to please.

    The battle of the On and Off ramps will play out in one way or another and I would expect at some point the studios and networks will take control of those ramps not only to get sexy people to their Hip New Hollywood Hot Spots but they will also want to eventually get the Bridge and Tunnel crowd into their New York Hot Spots as well.

  3. The big broadcasters are going to need P2P. And as you note, they’ll need the cooperation of their audiences to lobby their ISPs to allow peering. I’m not sure they can get to the point where they are ‘open’ to the community. Imagine if NFL Networks decides to offer their games via P2P next season. The economics work. By then the picture quality will be good enough. It’d be a perfect bludgeon vs. the MSOs. However the NFL is never going to allow open comments. There are probably some liability issues. The league won’t want to take grief from irate fans. But most importantly the attractive features of community won’t scale when you have 500K simultaneous viewers. How can you manage that? If large bcasters offer their content to their audiences at a low price (bandwidth and ad load), smaller independent communities will pop up quickly. They won’t come from the Mothership.

  4. Another thing commercial operators need to look at is providing incentives for participating in the community just like private sites enforce ratios .

    It may be a free movie rental or credit towards PPV offerings for uploading a certain amount of data or writing a review from their pay per view offerings (yes they are coming to platforms like Joost) or some free swag .

    Sure some companies have rewarded power users who contribute to beta tests of their product with various items of swag and sweepstakes that foster some community spirit but it needs to be extended and possibly help promote services that viewers might purchase in the future .