BitTorrent revolution builds on old model
BitTorrent is rolling out a service that could usher in a whole new era of television. Beginning next month, the San Francisco video and...
San Jose Mercury News
SAN JOSE, Calif. — BitTorrent is rolling out a service that could usher in a whole new era of television.
Beginning next month, the San Francisco video and media-distribution company will offer some of its library of television and feature films — which include titles such as "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "24" — for free as streaming videos, supported by advertising.
While it's too early to know how consumers will respond to the new service, it and similar offerings on the way from BitTorrent rivals point to a potential revolution in how consumers access television and movies.
That's because the services are a lot closer to traditional television than previous Internet video offerings, making it more likely viewers will adopt them.
Instead of having to pay for shows and wait 30 minutes or even hours to download them — as they might have to do with videos from iTunes, say — users will be able to watch them right away at no cost.
Internet-delivered video services such as BitTorrent's have largely been viewed as complementary to cable and satellite-television services, supplementing them and reaching consumers who aren't subscribers.
But some analysts say offerings such as BitTorrent's could eventually replace cable or satellite television.
"It's inevitable that the traditional broadcasting infrastructure will be replaced by [Internet] infrastructure that's on-demand," said Aram Sinnreich, managing partner of radar Research, a consulting firm that works with media and technology companies.
For all its revolutionary potential, BitTorrent's service will begin rather modestly. The company plans to quietly roll out the service starting with its top 10 titles.
The company doesn't plan to officially launch it until sometime in the third quarter, but eventually it plans to offer all of the 10,000 videos in its library as streams.
Meanwhile, BitTorrent will be experimenting with how to incorporate advertising into the videos, which will be embedded in Flash windows inside Web pages. In addition to ads offering consumers the option to buy a download of video, the company plans to test watermark logos, as well as showing commercials before, after and during the videos.
BitTorrent's streaming service is only the latest development in the fast-moving world of digital video. Startup Joost is already testing a similar streaming service with video from CBS, Sony pictures television and other providers.
Netflix got into the game earlier this year with a service that allows subscribers to watch streams of movies on their PCs rather than having a DVD sent to their house. Vudu, based in Santa Clara, Calif., is testing a service that would bypass PCs and stream rented or purchased movies from the Internet directly to a proprietary set-top box.
And that's not to mention the Web sites of major networks such as ABC and NBC, which stream recent episodes of many of their shows through their Web sites.
Hang on to your cable
Those streaming services follow the older video-download services offered by BitTorrent, Apple's iTunes, Akimbo and others. The big difference: A streaming video plays almost immediately; downloaded video does not start playing until a sizable portion of the file is stored on a viewer's machine.
The promise of such Internet-based video services is to offer something the cable and satellite networks don't: a universe of content available at the touch of a button.
But don't cancel your cable service just yet. The promise is far from being realized.
One of the biggest challenges is to get the video off the PC-based Internet and onto consumers' big-screen TVs. Apple TV and similar products are attempting to bridge that gap.
But home-networking technology to tie such devices to PCs is still difficult to set up and often doesn't have enough bandwidth to ensure high-quality, high-resolution video.
Licensing and pricing
Another challenge has to do with the licensing of content. Although digital distribution has the potential to offer viewers every video ever produced whenever they want it, today the reality is far from that. BitTorrent, for instance, lacks content from Sony and Walt Disney.
And such companies will have to contend with the sometimes-arcane rules governing video distribution that determine when and where particular movies and television shows can be shown.
"A lot" of whether Internet-delivered video reaches its promise "is going to come down to licensing and pricing," said Mike McGuire, a media industry analyst for research firm Gartner.
Comcast doesn't see much of a threat from Internet-delivered video, said Andrew Johnson, a spokesman.
Cable companies already provide most broadband connections to consumers' homes, he noted, so cable companies are poised to continue to be important players even if consumers get rid of their cable boxes.
And that seems unlikely, because people will continue to turn to traditional television for things like the Super Bowl, he said.
"Most folks are going to turn on their flat-screen TV and look for [that programming] there," Johnson said. "That's definitely where the consumer seems to be right now."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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