Tearing Up the Torrent
I have friends who've been talking about BitTorrent for months. Some are so far ahead of the curve that it seems they have already rounded the block and are sneaking up behind me. I've never been much for leaning my throat too forcefully against the cutting edge of media and technology, but I have been willing to scrape my fingers on it from time to time.
So, after a lot of hand-wringing about the moral quandaries surrounding the free downloading of copyrighted material, I decided to give BitTorrent a try. I decided to try downloading "Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith."
The first step was to download the BitTorrent tool, which can be accessed from the home page (www.bittorrent.com). This took only a few seconds to download and install, with multiple mirror sites to choose from.
The next step was to look for a file to download. This was also easy; there is a search function that can be accessed directly from the home page. From there, you'll get a list of links looking a lot like search results on Google.
The first difficult part was finding a file (or package of files) that was a) the file I wanted, b) active, as opposed to being a link that no longer worked, and c) a valid format for viewing. After a bit of poking around, I found a file that appeared to be a movie file. One click on the listing took me to a "Torrent details" page (file size, download speed, when the file posted, last checked, user reviews, etc). I clicked on the link for downloading the torrent and was prompted with a request asking me to select the application that should be used in opening the file. I selected the BitTorrent application.
A small window opened up on the laptop with a sliding button at the top used for setting a maximum upload rate. After a few minutes of sitting idly, the torrent began to very...slowly... download. The first status reading indicated that I was downloading at a couple of kilobytes per second and that the download would take 10 days. Ten days?! It took George Lucas just three weeks to shoot "American Graffiti."
After sifting through posts to online bulletin boards and reading BitTorrent's "Frequently Asked Questions" document, I raised the rate at which my computer allows uploads, which had a positive effect on the rate of download. The more bandwidth you give, the more bandwidth you'll get. Still, the download rate never went over 20 KBs for more than a few minutes at a time.
The entire file took my poor little laptop nearly four days to download.
That seemed like far too much time to make this a regular practice, given that I can go to Circuit City and pay a relatively small price for a studio-issue DVD. But, I thought, at least now I've got it. However, the problems became evident very quickly: The file was downloaded as a type I couldn't open right way. There's software that I could have used to open it on my system, but that was one more task that stood between me and the movie. I figured I'd just burn the file to a DVD and watch it.
At this point I discovered I don't have a DVD writer on my system! The file now sits idly in a folder named "My Videos." For those of you who are used to clicking on a link to download an application or a browser plug-in and have it work right away, using BitTorrent will be frustrating. The amount of work necessary to make this experience worth your while will make the experience not worth your while. For those of you can ask your kids for help, it will only be slightly less challenging. If you're not a regular computer user, abandon hope all ye who enter here.
Caught between the future of media and my previous experience with technology, I found BitTorrent a fascinating example of growing consumer control over media consumption. But the application is so advanced that it will make most people feel the pain rather than the pleasure of skating on new media's cutting edge.