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Vuze Takes A Gamble With New Client

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Vuze Inc. is introducing version 4.0 of its BitTorrent client later this week in an effort to both win back hardcore P2P users and broaden the overall user base of the file sharing protocol. Vuze 4.0 features a completely revamped interface, a new (and actually pretty clever) subscription mechanism, as well as the option to search third-party torrent sites like Mininova. The application continues to offer access to Vuze’s own content platform, albeit in a slightly less in-your-face kind of way. The content patform, now called Vuze HD Network, is also shifting directions.

Vuze 4.0 is an interesting piece of software, if only because it shows how difficult it is to monetize P2P. Competitors like BitTorrent Inc. have tried and failed to convert users into paying online video customers. Vuze is now taking a gamble by going back to its pirate-friendly roots, hoping to convince both its users and content owners to give free and ad-supported P2P-downloads a chance. It’s risky — but it may just be the only thing that works.

Vuze’s transition from an open-source application called Azureus to a P2P-powered online video platform hasn’t been without challenges. The platform initially launched as Zudeo in December 2006, then re-branded as Vuze, and the Azureus moniker got lost somewhere along the way. The original Azureus user base was confused by these moves. Quite a few abandoned Vuze for clients like uTorrent and Transmission. Torrentfreak reported earlier this year that uTorrent is now installed on more than 13 percent of all PCs, whereas Vuze only has a market share of about 5 percent. Vuze used to be in the lead as little as 18 months ago.

Vuze CEO Gilles Bianrosa told me a few days ago that his company wants to make up for those losses with a new interface that is supposed to make both beginners and experienced users happy. “The world of BitTorrent is a very fragmented ecosystem,” he told me, adding that many users would go to torrent search engines to find content, acquire the .torrent meta file from another site, download the content with an app and finally play it with a separate player. Vuze wants to simplify this experience by offering to search torrent sites and play video files right within its client. Advanced users can also subscribe to search results and automatically download periodic content.

Granted, subscriptions like these are not entirely new. In fact, Vuze has been offering RSS-based subscriptions through plug-ins for a while, but the new client adds an interesting social component to it. Users can decide to anonymously share their subscriptions with the rest of the Vuze community in a way that is a little bit like those customer-generated book lists on Amazon. Search for a file on Vuze, and you’ll see if the file is part of any subscription, complete with the offer to subscribe as well. That’s a clever way to utilize implicit social behavior, and it could help to get expert and novice users to cooperate.

Vuze’s hope is that this newfound utility will help to grow its user base, and that those users will eventually embrace the Vuze HD Network as well. The content platform used to be a mix of user-generated videos and content from TV networks that oftentimes was only available for cash. Bianrosa told me that the company is now moving away from lower-quality videos, with the goal to eventually just feature DVD-quality and HD content.

The company has lost some of its bigger partners in recent months, with both the BBC and Starz now completely absent. Bianrosa attributed that to a second shift, away from for-sale titles and towards ad-supported content. Apparently not everyone is willing to make that switch, but Bianrosa believes that it’s the right way to go if you want to monetize P2P. “We are targeting a user base that really doesn’t like to pay for things,” he told me.

In other words: Vuze is targeting P2P pirates, and it’s not willing to pretend otherwise anymore. That’s why the client allows its users to search, a site that got sued by the MPAA just a few months ago. “People are already searching those sites,” said Bianrosa, adding that with Vuze there was at least a chance to expose them to licensed content as well.

Of course, this argument goes both ways: If you want to reach experienced P2P users with legal offerings side by side to other search results on an easy to use platform, you inadvertently also risk exposing novice users to unlicensed content. That’s a risk that BitTorrent Inc wasn’t willing to take, which is why its content store failed. Vuze has definitely learned a lesson from failures like this — let’s just hope content owners have as well.

Note: The release of the client was scheduled for today, but has been pushed back by Vuze until Wednesday.