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Cookin' With P2P: Recipe for Success or Flash in the Pan?

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When many people think of peer-to-peer networking (P2P), they have a vision of Napster in the late 1990s when people were distributing copyrighted songs to one another in a community of users. But times have changed, and P2P is much more than a means of distributing stolen content. It is (and always has been) a very effective content delivery system that makes use of peer-member bandwidth. This system enables content owners to slash content delivery costs, and those cost savings grow exponentially when delivering long-form video content.

Today, with a wide variety of implementations, it is impossible to classify P2P in simple terms. There are companies like BitTorrent and Azureus, which are establishing publishing and distribution platforms on open networks with computers across the internet. There are also companies like Turner Broadcasting, which is distributing its content on a closed P2P network with a group of known users. Then there are hybrid solutions like Itiva and Abacast, which use P2P in combination with other delivery technologies. Finally, there are companies like Move Networks, which delivers content over a large-scale P2P network using bandwidth from a variety of CDN servers, rather than peer PCs, to deliver content.

Whatever the method, and whatever the definition, P2P vendors need to cross several barriers to persuade content owners to use P2P. These companies need to be able to prove that they can overcome the security issues of earlier-generation P2P content delivery, that they can provide meaningful business analytics information—so content owners can track information about the use of their content—and that they can monetize the entire process both for themselves and the content owner. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have to develop a seamless and simple process for consumers. None of this is easy, but there are lots of companies betting on P2P as a cheaper delivery option for long-form video, and content owners are beginning to listen.

Reputation Versus Reality
P2P content delivery suffers from a reputation of being a system that facilitates the stealing of content, rather than a legitimate choice for delivering content. (Whether this reputation is fair or unfair depends largely upon whom you ask.) While this reputation is changing, James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester, says the industry still has to fight the perception. "It definitely still suffers [from this reputation]. In fact some of the cozying up to companies like BitTorrent is partly a strategy of making sure you keep your enemies close to you so you can see what they are up to and maybe provide a disincentive for them to go back to their rogue ways," McQuivey says.

But BitTorrent CEO Bram Cohen takes exception to the idea that his is a rogue technology at all. He says from the beginning he has always been a technology creator and that, first and foremost, the P2P tool he created is a publishing and distribution platform. While BitTorrent may have been used in the past to pirate content, he says, content owners such as Twentieth Century Fox, Viacom, and many others have signed up for access to the 130 million BitTorrent clients.

Monty Mullig, SVP of digital media technologies at Turner Broadcasting System Inc., agrees, saying that P2P is nothing more than a delivery system and it’s how that system has been used in some cases that is the problem. "I would say that P2P as a technology, per se, hasn’t been the problem for content and copyright owners. It’s been the use and the way some services that are based on P2P technology have been deployed. There are plenty of ways to use P2P distribution that don’t infringe on the interests of copyright holders," Mullig says.

Michael King, president of Abacast, a service provider that uses a hybrid of P2P and other delivery technologies to deliver live streaming content, says that a couple of years ago P2P’s reputation became so negative that his company stopped using the term. "We, for some years, removed the words ‘peer to peer’ from our website completely because of the poor connotation that it gave, and we used the term ‘distributed streaming media,’ which is [the same thing]," King says. Over the last year, he says, it’s become acceptable to use the term "peer to peer" in discussions with content owners, who are growing increasingly curious about the technology.

One such company is Starz Media, which recently cut deals with BitTorrent and Azureus to distribute its content. Marc DeBeviose, SVP of business development strategy at Starz Media, says it’s purely pragmatic. His organization wants to sell digital content, and both of these companies have lots of users. "As they choose to commercialize those services and start to sell content, we think if the people are there and they’re looking for content, let’s give them the opportunity to do it legitimately because we think it’s the best way to stem piracy and grow our business," DeBeviose says. He also represents the significant change in attitude towards P2P when he says, "My view is that while it’s a technology used to steal content, so are YouTube and Google Video, but we use these for promotional purposes. These things can be legitimate or not. People steal DVDs, but we don’t stop selling them."

Efficient Content Delivery
One of the main reasons that companies like Starz Media and Turner Broadcasting are taking a long look at P2P content delivery is because they believe it will enable them to reach a larger audience for a lower cost. Forrester’s McQuivey says there are two sides to the P2P equation."You have to make a distinction when discussing P2P between the active user community actively sharing files and allowing their own network access to become a transport mechanism," he says, "and the sheer technological efficiency you get by distributing the delivery of content across multiple nodes on a network."

Marty Lafferty, CEO of Distributed Computing Industry Association (DCIA), a P2P trade group, agrees and thinks that P2P represents the cheapest and easiest way to deliver long-form video content. "First, start with the core idea that P2P technology is by far the most efficient way to distribute rich-media content. The larger the file, the more cost-effective it is, and the more popular it is, the more efficient. The speed of downloading increases as more people have copies of the content. It almost defies the laws of the server physics on the internet. Each user adds to the scale, distribution, and robustness," Lafferty says.

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