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Sci-tech: Broadband consumables, legally
Published in Daily News Egypt on 02 - 03 - 2007

Going to the cinema, playing DVDs, or just watching television is starting to become a thing of the past. They are each starting to drag their romantic semantics of 'the big screen', 'great picture', and 'my favorite soap is on', in a trail of inconvenience behind them.
A healthy broadband connection brings with it many pleasures. You might video/voice-chat on weekends with relatives abroad, watch news clips on your lunch break, or once in a while, play a game over the Internet.
But what's being done en masse across the world, in numbers that are crippling the profits of the entertainment industries, is the downloading of music and videos: Mp3, AVI and Mpeg files.
Downloading by definition can mean to receive data from a remote system; so technically, you are doing this every time you visit a website. That said, the kind of downloading that makes headlines is that which lets people swap, exchange and share the latest chart albums, cinema releases or television shows over the Internet.
And in the news this week is the BitTorrent protocol - for downloading large files of compressed data.
File sharing and downloading came to notoriety in 2001 when A&M Records successfully brought court action against the first major music-downloading site Napster and found it and its users in violation of copyright law. The creators of a later file-downloading piece of software Kazaa saw legal problems for years culminating in the 2005 decision by the Federal Court of Australia to ban users from downloading it.
What Napster and Kazaa did - that today's music sites Limewire and Bearshare continue to do - is rely on a peer-to-peer (or P2P) network that harnesses the computer power and bandwidth of all those connected to it. Napster and Kazaa used a centralized P2P network that kept data about users, or peers, on its server. This meant you were connecting to the same computer, the server, which everyone else is connected to. So this means you could be downloading a song or a movie as small pieces from multiple people that all come together to form a single file.
So could the BitTorrent downloading protocol be referred to as the next step in P2P?
It works like this. A torrent file is like a helper file that's downloaded from any one of multiple websites. Once activated, it gives you access to a tracker, a piece of computer code. The difference here, that makes BitTorrent so revolutionary, is that instead of the trackers for all download files being on a single centralized server, each tracker for any given download can be on a different computer.
Let's say you've already downloaded and run the torrent file and connected to the tracker mechanism. Then, for whatever file you download, the tracker feeds you information about all the pieces of the file you need and who has them.
The BitTorrent protocol itself is not illegal, and you are free to download clients - software applications that manage your torrent files - from numerous places on the web. And its popularity has seen a person using BitTorrent to download not only illegal but legal downloads: paid-for-software, shareware, software upgrades, and Mp3s, Mpeg and AVI files being made available legitimately. Nonetheless, the BitTorrent technology has built up an increasingly negative reputation, especially among film studio and record company executives, as a means of distributing unlicensed and illegal music, films and computer software.
The latest news for BitTorrent is that the pioneer of the original protocol, Bram Cohen, and his company Bittorrent Inc., has announced a commercial deal that encompasses many major Hollywood studios, to legally distribute their content. That's right - after much humming and hawing, the studio executives are realizing that Internet distribution is likely the way to go.
In this new deal, films from Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Lionsgate, and TV networks for shows like 24 and Punk d , would all be distributed via the BitTorrent Entertainment Network website. In this way, the studio execs would have BiTorrent providing much of the same content legally that many current downloaders get illegally.
The new system will essentially let people rent movies and TV programs, by paying between two and four dollars per instance for permission to download and watch for a limited period of time before expiring. With this service comes the promise of high-quality video files with first-class audio, said to be something an illegal copy cannot guarantee. The video files to be downloaded from the BitTorrent Entertainment Network are all security-protected by Microsoft and will only be playable with Windows Media Player.
This same demographic that currently downloads illegally is also being wooed by the latest generation of video games consoles like PlayStation 3, Xbox, and the Wii, which are all offering content via broadband. And so too are the movie- and video-oriented websites Netflix, Movielink, Joost and even YouTube, are vying for market share.
Those consumers that appreciate the flexibility and speed that the BitTorrent technology offers will enjoy the video-on-demand approach to watching television: the Internet is good at delivering the content you want, when you want it.
But with any commercial model comes a pinch: the file expires after a few days, or it can't be transferred to your DVD player, or doesn't even offer the widescreen version.
The dilemma emerging for BitTorrent Inc., wading into a crowded legal video-download revolution, is: Will BitTorrent users choose to start paying for content that they could otherwise get for free?
Now that the Hollywood majors seem to be on their side, in principal at least, you can rest assured that you will be getting the latest films you want - in the quality you want - and when you want, in the very competitive near future.


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