Toronto’s OpenCola lives on in Swarmcast

(cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

Given the kind of publicity that Bram Cohen and BitTorrent have recently gotten by announcing deals with Warner Brothers and other movie studios and content owners, it’s worth noting that a Toronto-based company got there long before BitTorrent — at least in terms of the technology, if not the public awareness.

OpenCola was a technology startup with a peer-to-peer (P2P) application of the same name that was similar to Kazaa and Limewire, but years before either of those would become household names. On Thursday, the successor to OpenCola announced a $5-million financing deal with two Japanese venture-capital funds.

In the late 1990s, a young programmer named Justin Chapweske had developed a technology he called Swarmcast that was designed for sending large files over the Internet. It did this by chopping each file up into tiny bits, distributing those bits to many different hosts, and then allowing users to download those bits from any location — at which point the software would reassemble them into the original file. In other words, exactly the same process used by BitTorrent, except that Swarmcast was developed in 1999 and BitTorrent didn’t appear until 2002.

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Justin wound up joining Toronto-based OpenCola — whose founders included Cory Doctorow, one of the editors behind BoingBoing. Unfortunately, that coincided with a downturn in technology markets, and OpenCola did not survive. The technology was sold to Waterloo, Ont.-based Open Text Corp. Justin Chapweske later started another company called Onion Networks and eventually reacquired the rights to the Swarmcast technology.

So why is BitTorrent a relatively well-known name and Swarmcast is not? Because the two took different approaches to commercializing their software. Bram Cohen chose the “open source” route and released the code for his software so that anyone could use or distribute it (so long as they didn’t charge money for it or claim it as their own). It quickly became the technology of choice for downloading everything from cracked software and illegally copied movies to pornography, although it was also used for distributing large files such as the various flavours of the Linux operating system. And that in turn got the attention of content owners.

Swarmcast, meanwhile, decided to focus on working behind the scenes with companies that would have an interest in distributing large amounts of content over the Internet — including distributing digital films to movie theatres. The company also helps power MLB.com, the major-league baseball service, which distributes huge quantities of video and audio to baseball fans. Not as sexy as doing deals with Hollywood movie studios, but not bad either.

Huffington Post takes on the media

Is Arianna going to huff and puff and blow the traditional media down? According to the New York Times (reg. required), the Huffington Post blog network is getting into the journalism business in a big way. The site only started 18 months ago but has become a serious online player, with 2.3 million unique visitors a month — more than some mainstream newspaper websites.

Huffington says it has hired Melinda Henneberger, a former New York Times reporter and Newsweek staffer, as its political editor, and plans to hire “a number” of other journalists to help it produce online journalism “with attitude.” The Post is already doing something along those lines with its Eat The Press feature, whose editor Rachel Sklar is a Canadian transplant.

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This is obviously what Huffington has planned for the $5-million in financing the site got from Softbank Capital earlier this year (it also has funding from Greycroft Partners, backers of Rafat Ali’s online media shop, PaidContent). Arianna said she will be hiring investigative journalists and reporters with video expertise. They will travel, have deadlines and (gasp!) get paid, just like “real” journalists.

Coincidentally, there’s been a lot of talk over the past few days about Kevin Maney’s recent piece for USA Today about what to do with newspapers — which my friend and former journalist Mark Evans discusses here. In my view, newspapers had better get their running shoes on, because online media like Huffington Post and PaidContent are already halfway down the track.

Update:

As Jeff Jarvis notes, this announcement comes just over a week after two senior journalists left the Washington Post to join an online media startup that plans to focus on multi-platform political reporting.

Andy Rutledge thinks you’re a moron

My friend Rob sent me a link to a recent blog post by Web designer Andy Rutledge because (I suspect) he knew that it would drive me up a wall, and he was right. It’s entitled “Anti-Social Media,” and it is a treatise on why social media is bad, why Web 2.0 is bad and why elitism is good — and, in fact, more than just good. Necessary. In this, Andy (whether he knows it or not) is channeling fellow elitists Nick “The Prophet of Doom” Carr and Andrew “Web 2.0 is Socialism 2.0” Keen.

The argument is relatively simple, although Andy decides for some reason to stretch it out over thousands of words, highlighted in a yellow-on-black colour scheme that is quite ugly. Luckily, Andy doesn’t care what I think of his design, because I’m just a yob who doesn’t know anything — just like you, and most of your friends. And Andy doesn’t care what I think of his ideas either, or he would have comments on his blog. But then, any idiot would be able to take issue with his views, and that just wouldn’t do.

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Here are some selected quotes:

The wisdom of crowds and the related ideals cited above are largely about championing and cultivating two things: mediocrity and decadence.

Mediocrity is the only possible result of a wide sampling of opinion or input. The only idea that can survive such a mechanism is one consistent with the lowest common denominator. The mob works to ensure that all other results are weeded out.

One of the grave flaws of the growing social media and its foundational ideals is that it facilitates irresponsibility and it fuels and rewards our basest motivations.

So, in a nutshell, Andy believes that crowds are grunting masses of baboons, and that anything that surveys a group of people will inevitably result in mediocrity. The great are pulled down amongst the rabble. Pretty depressing, right? At one point, Andy says that “Western culture is on the downhill slope and gathering speed toward the brick wall at the bottom.” It made me want to crawl into bed with a copy of Wuthering Heights and a nice bottle of Dom Perignon and wait for the mob with pitchforks to attack my castle.

Andy also says: “Think about great ideas. Not good ideas or decent ideas, but great ideas. Where do they come from? Do they come from the masses? Do they come from consensus? No, they come from individuals.”

Andy doesn’t tell us where we are to find those individuals, however. I’m assuming he would probably give the usual answer — Harvard, Yale, Cambridge. Maybe even MIT or the Sorbonne in a pinch. But isn’t social media of all kinds a way of finding those voices that might have great ideas, or be excellent in some way? Apparently not. Social media is all about cheapness and irresponsibility, and that’s what always wins, Andy says. What a depressing view of humanity.

What do you think? I think Andy needs to get out a little more and quit using Digg.com or Fark.com as the benchmark for all of social media.

BitTorrent deal amounts to very little

Like most press releases, the one about the deal between the Hollywood movie studios and BitTorrent is full of bombast and hype about this historic arrangement and how it will stop piracy, etc. etc. Hosannas and high-fives all round. Like the earlier announcement about BitTorrent’s deal with Warner Brothers, however, there is a lot left unsaid in the release, since to say it would remove a lot of the thunder.

The press release goes into lots of detail about how BitTorrent, which started up in 2001, has become “the most efficient means of distributing large, high-quality files on the Internet” and “accounts for as much as 40 percent of all worldwide Internet traffic.” Then it says that BitTorrent “continues to work with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to remove copyright infringing content.”

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In the New York Times story, it says that “BitTorrent’s partners will upload authorized versions of their TV shows and films onto the network.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? Except for the fact that there is no BitTorrent “network.” The agreement to remove copyright-infringing content from search results applied only to bittorrent.com, which no one who uses BitTorrent ever goes to. It has nothing to do with all the other BitTorrent sites and “networks” out there that account for all that traffic.

The confusion is between the company — which autistic programmer Bram Cohen founded, although Om reports that he is to be replaced as part of a rumoured financing deal — and the BitTorrent protocol, which is the technology. The technology Bram developed is open source, which is why there are dozens of BitTorrent download programs available, with more appearing every day.

Functionally speaking, there is no BitTorrent “network” — it is a fully distributed peer-to-peer system in which “trackers” broadcast the details about a file, and “seeders” distribute pieces of it. Bram Cohen can’t do anything about any of those files, even if he wanted to. The movie studios can use it to distribute their films, which will undoubtedly be all clogged up with DRM, but if they want to compete with piracy it’s going to take a bit more than a press release. Tony Hung over at Deep Jive Interests says the news could actually be good for pirates.

Verizon: Stupid, stupid, stupid

I know that Forrest Gump said “Stupid is as stupid does,” but there’s really no other word for what Verizon is doing with its much-heralded launch of YouTube video on cellphones. I mean, really. How much stupider could this get? The answer, to paraphrase Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap, is none — none stupider. Fred Wilson sums it up in a single word: Lame. In fact, this deal is right off the lame-o-meter. How do I lame-ify thee? Let me count the ways.

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Watching video clips on your cellphone would be great, right? Except that Verizon will only let you watch them if you subscribe to a monthly service called VCast. And YouTube is great because of all the cool videos on there, right? Except that Verizon will select some for you to watch, rather than letting you do the selecting. As Rob Pegoraro notes in the Washington Post, this is just reproducing the broken cable model on a cellphone.

Howard Lindzon says that Verizon’s new slogan should be “We uncool your brand,” which is both hilarious and right on the money. If this is a sign of the kind of crap Google is going to do now that it owns YouTube, then that $1.6-billion in stock is going to get obliterated pretty quickly. Michael Parekh says that “incumbent businesses keep adopting the same myopic, warped business strategies that failed the last time around,” and my friend Mark Evans has some thoughts as well.

Update:

On a somewhat related note, I came across a post from David Cohen of Colorado Startups (hat tip to Leigh Himel of Oponia) about a failed startup he was involved in called iContact, which tried to create a social-networking platform for mobile phones. Here’s what he had to say in part:

The mobile industry is full of pitfalls. If you don’t have connections to cellular operators, you’ll literally need to buy them just to get a shot. It’s an old boys club and the whole industry is just trying to keep control of the closed system they’ve put together.

Open APIs are really only open to partners, revenue shares feel like hostage situations, and network aware or location based applications sit in queues waiting for “approval” which is a euphemism for “hell to freeze over.”

Yup. Sounds about right.