BitTorrent's CEO discusses new projects designed to shape the company's future
BitTorrent’s 2013 challenge is to convince the public that it isn’t a playground for music pirates.
The San Francisco-based company continues to develop the file-sharing protocol invented by Bram Cohen in 2001. BitTorrent Inc. has grown exponentially since its inception in 2004. It is not the only company to offer torrenting clients, which allow users to share large files, but it is the most well-known.
And tens of thousands of BitTorrent’s 170 million active monthly users have been investigated for sharing copyrighted movies and music over the last nine years.
But BitTorrent CEO Eric Klinker, who took over the helm in 2008, doesn’t want piracy to be the company’s legacy.
To accomplish this, Klinker has set the company’s engineers loose in a new venture called BitTorrent Labs, where ideas based on the BitTorrent protocol are incubated and alpha testers offer feedback. So far, Labs has produced Sync, a personal file-sharing program; BitTorrent Live, a streaming client; and Surf, a torrent discovery extension for Chrome.
BitTorrent also is exploring partnerships with authors like Tim Ferriss, who saw his most recent book, “The 4-Hour Chef,” hit the New York Times bestseller list with a last-minute push from BitTorrent. Ferriss partnered with the company for promotional help after Barnes & Noble decided not to sell his book.
BitTorrent is also in talks with the band Linkin Park to work on projects later this year.
We sat down with Klinker and marketing vice president Matt Mason to discuss how BitTorrent is using these new experiments to shed its old reputation.
TechHive: What are you trying to accomplish with BitTorrent Labs?
Klinker: The engineers at this company are hands-down the smartest engineers I’ve ever worked with. The talent that BitTorrent has been able to attract, just raw engineering capability, is unrivaled. We needed a way to give these engineers an outlet.
We want products to be demonstrated commercial ideas before that technology or those products see the light of day. That [commercial viability test] didn’t give our engineers the appropriate outlet to express their creativity. Labs is the opportunity for some of those ideas to be released and get a sense of whether there’s a product opportunity there. Is this something that the BitTorrent community as a whole might embrace? Is this something that the broader marketplace might embrace? It gives us the opportunity to ask and then answer those questions without actually having to take a formal product to market and all the associated overhead with that.
TechHive: Do you expect these projects to eventually turn into moneymakers?
Klinker: They might be; they might not be. There’s no gate that you have to pass through to get into Labs. It was precisely because we didn’t want to put that overhead on products that we created Labs in the first place. This is an opportunity to take some of that success we’ve had in the marketplace and give back to the users that have made us successful—give them new expressions of distributive technologies. This could be the next BitTorrent, for example. It may not.
TechHive: Is Sync, the pre-alpha personal syncing project recently launched, designed to compete with Dropbox?
Klinker: We don’t know. It’s not a product yet. It’s an idea at this point. It uses the BitTorrent protocol. It uses it in ways that are not commonly thought of. Could the BitTorrent protocol be used to share photos with my family members? Yes, I do that today. The Sync application is perhaps an easier way to do that. It’s an interface that my mother can understand.
TechHive: What kind of feedback are you getting from alpha testers?
Klinker: Overwhelming, and very technical. The feedback is exactly what we wanted Labs to be—a forum—an opportunity for the broader BitTorrent community to explore some of our ideas and help collaborate with us on bringing these ideas to market.
TechHive: Streaming was once thought to be difficult if not impossible to do using torrents. How does BitTorrent Live work?
Klinker: BitTorrent Live is a new protocol. Whereas Sync relies heavily on the BitTorrent protocol, Live is a new protocol that our founder [Bram Cohen] invented from the ground up. He adhered exactly to the principles that made BitTorrent successful. It is a distributive protocol, it relies on no servers, it is designed to bring linear video to an audience that could be millions in size, and to do that as reliably, organically, and to scale as BitTorrent does with on-demand content. The technology is to a point where we are interested in exploring product opportunities. We’re actively seeking partners who might want to use this technology and help us test it.
TechHive: What applications do you envision for Live?
Klinker: It’s applicable to any real-time event. My son is playing a soccer game and it’s a soccer game that might be very important to me and my family. The [extended family] may not be able to see the soccer game because they live in Ohio. Live would be an opportunity for me to broadcast that game to the audience that cares about it with less than five seconds in latency.
Anything that resonates with the Ustream crowd, you could imagine being a BitTorrent Live opportunity. There may be commercial applications for content that can’t quite reach the bar necessary to have infrastructure like Ustream or Justin.tv. These take servers; these take money. That manifests itself in advertising that gets in the way of the experience or it results in direct costs that the broadcaster has to bear. Live removes the barriers for these broadcasters and gives them the opportunity to reach an audience that otherwise wouldn’t be economically viable.
TechHive: Has the association of BitTorrent with illegal file-sharing changed, or do you expect it to change?
Klinker: It’s widely recognized that BitTorrent the protocol does not equal piracy. Even media companies like CBS engaged in litigation today are staunch defenders of BitTorrent the protocol. If I use Internet Explorer, it’s not Internet Explorer that’s publishing the content, it’s CNN or another [creator]. The content may be good or bad, but the Web browser itself is neutral.
There are many good uses of BitTorrent. We continue to package new applications around the BitTorrent protocol that drive that point home, Sync being the latest. How users leverage that technology is at the heart of the matter. We continue to believe and have supporters in content industries as well as Internet libertarian circles that BitTorrent is a neutral technology. It’s neither good nor bad.
TechHive: How are you trying to combat that perception?
Klinker: It’s a marketing problem. Because the main entities that may be interested in
promoting this notion control the media channels themselves, it’s difficult to say. Will you get a fair hearing in the court of public opinion? I don’t know. Hopefully we will. We continue to work with artists that sing our praises. I believe we can make inroads there.
Mason: We’ve got a huge branding issue on our hands, which is the reason I joined BitTorrent. There is a big challenge here, but there’s also a huge opportunity. If you look outside the entertainment industries, this is one of the most loved brands on the Internet. If you look at the last 10 years of the company, it looks like the first 10 years of any major innovation in media. If you go back to when [Thomas] Edison invented the record player, musicians branded this guy a pirate. He created this machine that created a perfect recording of a live performance, which is how musicians made money.
TechHive: Do you envision BitTorrent as a content seller, or just a marketplace for fans and artists to meet?
Mason: BitTorrent is a place that's really about options rather than rules. Should we create some kind of store and take 30 percent of whatever people put in there? Probably not. Should we buy lots of content and try to sell it at a profit? No, we’re an engineering company. We’ve never been good at that. We did licensing deals with studios before Netflix did all this. We opened a store. It didn’t really work.
TechHive: Do you have partnerships or content deals on the horizon?
Mason: We just hit 2 million downloads of [author] Tim Ferriss, who came to us the week before his book “The 4-Hour Chef” was going to be released. He said, “I’ve been banned by Barnes & Noble.” He was facing a real problem: How to successfully launch a book without physical bookstores? We put out [a sample content package] to users the week his book came out; 210,000 downloaded the sample bundle using BitTorrent and 89,000 of them clicked through to visit his Amazon page—an almost 50 percent conversion rate.
People are assuming our biggest problem with content creators is that they hate us and they don’t want to work with us. Our biggest problem with content creators today is that so many of them want to work with us, and we haven’t built the toolset.