BitTorrent Aims for the Live Video Web

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BitTorrent inventor Bram Cohen has been busy over the last twelve months working on a new P2P protocol dubbed Project Pheon that is optimized for live streaming. Cohen’s Company BitTorrent Inc. publicly announced Project Pheon for the first time this week, and it looks like the protocol could be used to power a Ustream-like personal live streaming service with very low infrastructure costs.

BitTorrent launched uTorrent Labs this week, which is essentially a portfolio of projects related to the company’s popular uTorrent client. The spotlight of the announcement was on a new web extension framework for uTorrent dubbed Project Griffin, but the Labs website also contains a first mention of Project Pheon. It reads, in part:

“Pheon will enable the immediate distribution of live media to millions of consumers with self-propagating peer-to-peer infrastructure. It will make use of existing filetypes and codecs and aims to achieve a live media consumption experience with considerably more efficiency and less end-to-end latency than existing implementations.”

It’s no secret that BitTorrent Inc. is working on video streaming. Cohen talked to Torrentfreak about his work on this late last year, boasting that his solution had a latency of less than five seconds. However, BitTorrent had previously focused on enabling B2B media distribution through P2P, and Cohen compared his work to a solution developed by the EU-funded P2P Next-project. Many in the industry naturally assumed that the company wanted to help broadcasters and other large publishers with their streaming needs.

Turns out, Pheon is really about something else: Personal live streaming in the way it’s been offered by Ustream or Justin.tv. Here’s a tweet Cohen send out a few weeks ago:

A few seconds later, he tweeted:

BitTorrent’s VP of marketing Simon Morris confirmed yesterday that these experiments were in fact part of Cohen’s work on Pheon. He told me that the project isn’t quite finished yet, but that Cohen has been working on it almost exclusively over the last twelve months, and that he hopes to have something ready for a first release in three to six months.

Morris said that the company hasn’t decided yet whether Pheon will be a stand-alone product or integrated into existing software or websites. One scenario would be to license it to companies like Justin.tv to power their websites, but it’s also quite possible that BitTorrent will launch its own live streaming service, which may or may not be integrated into or connected to uTorrent. Part of the reason for announcing it now was to get feedback from the community on these different options, said Morris.

BitTorrent has been spending a lot of work on more closely aligning its software with the web. The company launched a web-based remote sharing platform for uTorrent called Project Falcon in February, and is scheduled to release an SDK that will allow third-party developers to program web apps for uTorrent’s Project Griffin in about a month.

A web-based live streaming service powered by uTorrent has the potential to be very disruptive to the live streaming space. Not only would it give BitTorrent (or any other company operating the service) a big cost advantage over its competition, it would also tap into a huge client install base. uTorrent had 52 million monthly users by the end of last year, and Torrentfreak reported that it had a torrent client market share of close to 26 percent in December.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Hannaford.

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