When BitTorrent was first launched in 2002 it was a breakthrough technology.
At the time it was virtually impossible to share large files with millions of people over the Internet, something BitTorrent can do very effectively.
Today, the standard BitTorrent clients have lost most of their shine. While it’s still one of the best ways to transfer data from A to B, they became somewhat old-fashioned with the rise of video streaming sites and services.
But what if there was a technology that could combine the two? Smooth and instant streaming in the browser powered by BitTorrent’s core technology. That’s in short what WebTorrent does.
WebTorrent is a project launched by Feross Aboukhadijeh, a Stanford University graduate who has already booked quite a few successes in his career. After graduating he founded PeerCDN, a P2P-assisted content delivery network, which was sold to Yahoo at the end of 2013.
Feross then focused on WebTorrent, convinced that it could revolutionize how the web works today.
“I felt that the idea of ‘people-powered websites’ – websites that are hosted by the visitors who use them – was too revolutionary to keep locked up as proprietary software, and I wanted to do more to push the idea forward,” he tells TF.
“Imagine a video site like YouTube, where visitors help to host the site’s content. The more people that use a WebTorrent-powered website, the faster and more resilient it becomes.”
Simply put, WebTorrent is a BitTorrent client for the web. Instead of using standalone applications it allows people to share files directly from their browser, without having to configure or install anything.
This opens up BitTorrent technology to virtually any website that deals with a lot of data, and expands the userbase by hundreds of millions of people who already have compatible browsers such as Chrome or Firefox installed.
Over the past two years WebTorrent has matured into a project that’s slowly starting to win over several major tech companies.
Netflix, for example, contacted Feross to discuss his technology which they may use to stream their videos. A few months ago Netflix specifically mentioned WebTorrent in a job application, which shows that the video giant is serious about P2P-assisted delivery.
Feross believes that companies such as Netflix could benefit greatly from WebTorrent. Currently, streaming performance goes down during peak hours but with WebTorrent this shouldn’t be a problem.
“If Netflix uses WebTorrent, customers would see higher video quality during peak hours. WebTorrent would allow customers with the same ISP to share video pieces with each other without leaving the ISP’s network,” Feross says.
“This ensures the best quality, even during peak Netflix usage hours when the network link between the ISP and Netflix is fully saturated,” he adds.
Netflix aside, there are already various noteworthy implementations of WebTorrent. The project’s homepage, for example, shows how easily it can stream video and βTorrent offers a fully functioning torrent client UI.
Other examples include File.pizza, which uses WebTorrent to share files in the browser. The same technology is used for server-less websites by PeerCloud and Webtorrentapp, while GitTorrent uses it to decentralize source control.
In addition to the examples above, the Internet Archive is also looking into the technology for its video distribution, and another major tech company is considering adding WebTorrent support to their web browser.
It’s not all roses though and there are still several challenges to overcome. Not all browsers support WebRTC yet, most notably, Internet Explorer. In addition, WebTorrent can’t talk to traditional torrent clients which use UDP and TCP instead of WebRTC.
There are several hybrid clients such as Playback, but ideally WebTorrent should be more tightly integrated into the standard BitTorrent protocol, which is something Feross is currently working on.
It’s clear that WebTorrent has a lot of potential and it will be interesting to see how it develops over the years to come. If it’s up to Feross, it will play a major role in the future of the web.
“I like to think of WebTorrent as core Internet infrastructure. It’s an efficient way to transfer files between users on a website, and I expect we’ll continue to see many more creative uses for the protocol,” he says.