BitTorrent Protocol Turns 15 Years Old Today

Opinion

Fifteen years ago a developer named Bram Cohen posted a short message online, announcing his new file-sharing tool BitTorrent. Three years later his protocol was responsible for a quarter of all Internet traffic, and now it helps people to share hundreds of petabytes of data per day.

bittorrent_logo“My new app, BitTorrent, is now in working order, check it out here,” Bram Cohen wrote on a Yahoo! message board on July 2, 2001.

It was the first time a working copy of the BitTorrent code had been made available to the public, but the initial response wasn’t exactly overwhelming.

“What’s BitTorrent, Bram?” was the sole reply he received on the board.

Fast forward 15 years and BitTorrent has become one of the most prominent technologies of the current millennium. One that transformed the web and which is still hugely relevant today.

When Cohen first announced his invention to the world, he could have never imagined that the technology would be used by hundreds of millions of people in the years that followed.

He was simply trying to improve file transfers, by using people’s upload and download capacity simultaneously.

“Fundamentally, I was trying to figure out how people on the Internet could utilize all the unused upstream bandwidth to make it faster to send huge files,” Bram Cohen told TorrentFreak, commenting on these early days.

BitTorrent FAQ Cohen wrote in 2001

btfaq

While the technology itself was the main focus for Cohen, the public quickly realized that BitTorrent opened the door to sharing huge files, which was very rare at the time.

Since BitTorrent users download and upload at the same time, popular files are distributed more quickly. With other file-sharing technologies, distribution slows down.

This idea was a major breakthrough at the time. Before then, it was virtually impossible for a regular Internet user to share a video with dozens of people, but torrents made it possible. As a result, BitTorrent soon became responsible for a quarter of all Internet traffic.

As with many innovations on the web, porn fans were among the first to embrace the new technology in its full glory. Several of the early torrent sites were exclusively centered around adult content, and a torrent site without a porn category was rare.

After a few months, torrent sites started popping up left and right, listing a wide range of content. This included perfectly legal Linux distros, but also pirated copies of The Matrix, Photoshop and the Spice Girls’ latest album.

With the rise of sites such as The Pirate Bay, Mininova, isoHunt and KickassTorrents, torrents became a synonym for piracy among the broader public. However, the technology itself is “neutral” and used more broadly than most people realize.

Twitter and Facebook also discovered the power of BitTorrent. Behind the scenes, it’s helping these tech giants distribute files across their servers faster and more efficiently than any other alternatives. And the opportunities don’t end there.

BitTorrent Inc, the company Bram Cohen co-founded in 2004 has released various applications for the BitTorrent protocol over the past years. A “sync” tool that lets people run their private backup solution, for example, or a browser that serves webpages without the need for a central server.

Cohen himself also worked hard on a live streaming implementation of BitTorrent. Although this hasn’t been adopted widely just yet, BitTorrent Inc. believes that it could power the future of online live news and entertainment.

Whatever the future may look like, it is safe to say that with BitTorrent, Bram Cohen changed the lives of dozens of millions of people.

Directly, by allowing people around the world to easily share large files without the need for a central server. But also indirectly, by being one of the great motivators for the entertainment industries to compete with piracy and offer their content online.

If Bram hadn’t taken his invention public 15 years ago, the Internet may have looked very different today.

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