BitTorrent is coming to your TV, smartphone, and tablet — though not in the way you might expect. It's launching an app today called BitTorrent Now that basically sounds like a bizarro mashup of Netflix and Spotify, offering on-demand streaming of videos and music, but largely from independent artists you've never heard of.
This isn't a way to access the myriad amount of pirated content available on torrent sites. This is from BitTorrent the company, the one trying to turn BitTorrent's name and technology into a legitimate way for small artists to get their stuff out into the world. That means everything on BitTorrent Now should be something that was explicitly uploaded by its creator. Some of it will be free, while other stuff will require payment or include ads.
For the most part, BitTorrent Now is going to be like any other streaming app. You'll open it up, browse for something to watch or listen to, and click play. The big difference is that most of what you're browsing will be from smaller artists. They won't be limited to just music and video, either; BitTorrent says it'll support streaming of VR content and pretty much anything else that people want to upload.
BitTorrent has been building out a content catalog for a few years now with its Bundle format. It's managed to attract some major artists — including Thom Yorke, Moby, and David Cross — with 30,000 people in total using the platform to publish their work. But those major artists are the exception here. And when you do see recognizable names on Now, like the film distributor A24, you're likely to come upon promotional material, rather than the actual movies or music you're looking for.
Will people visit BitTorrent instead of SoundCloud or YouTube?
I can't really see why someone would want to spend their time browsing through BitTorrent Now in search of gems that might be buried inside it. But BitTorrent says that it's been having success so far through its Bundle platform, with over 200 million downloads to date.
"One of the best things that we've seen over the course of building this project, and one of the things that makes me mad optimistic about creativity as a whole, is that some of the most streamed and most downloaded projects are from independent collectives," says Straith Schreder, BitTorrent's VP of creative initiatives. "Being able to shine a light on some of these creators [and giving them] agency to connect with a passionate global base of film and music fans is really important."
It's definitely an exciting and powerful goal — the question is how important the role of something like BitTorrent Now can actually be. Musicians can easily publish to SoundCloud or Bandcamp. Filmmakers can publish to YouTube or Vimeo or Facebook. These platforms are controlled and have limits, but they're where audiences are already looking.
Schreder says there are still key advantages to BitTorrent. Other platforms, she says, are "prescriptive. It must be music. It must be video. We want to keep that deliberately open so creators can experiment, to create and break what we think of art online as a whole."
And BitTorrent Now seems to be about opening BitTorrent up to a broader audience, so that more people can start to find these things. The app will be available on iOS, Android, and Apple TV. That'll make it far easier for people to start exploring — no longer will you have to know about torrent files and clients.
In fact, torrenting isn't involved here at all: at launch, these apps are all using a completely standard streaming setup, where content is sent from BitTorrent's servers to your computer — it's not peer-to-peer at all. BitTorrent CEO Jerm Johnson says that's temporary, just to be used while Now gets off the ground. "We are actively developing the P2P components, which require varying levels of effort for each platform," Johnson says in a statement. He adds that, "these apps will use distributed networking in the near future."
If you like music, movies, and other art that is very, very under the radar, then maybe BitTorrent Now will be worth checking out. It'll be available on Android today, while its iOS and Apple TV launch are supposed to "follow shortly."