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BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer file sharing company, is today opening an alpha test for its latest stab at disrupting — or at least getting people to rethink — how users interact with each other and with content over the Internet. Project Maelstrom is BitTorrent’s take on the web browser: doing away with centralised servers, web content is instead shared through torrents on a distributed network.
BitTorrent years ago first made a name for itself as a P2P network for illicit file sharing — a service that was often used to share premium content for free at a time when it was hard to get legal content elsewhere. More recently, the company has been applying its knowledge of distributed architecture to tackle other modern file-sharing problems, producing services like Sync to share large files with others, Bundle for content makers to have a way of distributing and selling content; and the Bleep messaging service.
These have proven attractive to people for a number of reasons. For some, it’s about more efficient services — there is an argument to be made for P2P transfers of large files being faster and easier than those downloaded from the cloud — once you’ve downloaded the correct local client, that is (a hurdle in itself for some).
For others, it is about security. Your files never sit on any cloud, and instead stay locally even when they are shared.
This latter point is one that BitTorrent has been playing up a lot lately, in light of all the revelations around the NSA and what happens to our files when they are put onto cloud-based servers. (The long and short of it: they’re open to hacking, and they’re open to governments and others’ prying fingers.)
In the words of CEO Eric Klinker, Maelstrom is part of that line of thinking that using P2P can help online content run more smoothly.
“What if more of the web worked the way BitTorrent does?” he writes of how the company first conceived of the problem. “Project Maelstrom begins to answer that question with our first public release of a web browser that can power a new way for web content to be published, accessed and consumed. Truly an Internet powered by people, one that lowers barriers and denies gatekeepers their grip on our future.”
Easy enough to say, but also leaving the door open to a lot of questions.
For now, the picture you see above is the only one that BitTorrent has released to give you an idea of how Maelstrom might look. Part of the alpha involves not just getting people to sign up to use it, but getting people signed up to conceive of pages of content to actually use. “We are actively engaging with potential partners who would like to build for the distributed web,” a spokesperson says.
Nor is it clear what form the project will take commercially.
Asked about advertising — one of the ways that browsers monetise today — it is “too early to tell,” the spokesperson says. “Right now the team is focused on building the technology. We’ll be evaluating business models as we go, just as we did with Sync. But we treat web pages, along with distributed web pages the same way other browsers do. So in that sense they can contain any content they want.”
That being said, it won’t be much different from what we know today as “the web.”
“HTML on the distributed web is identical to HTML on the traditional web. The creation of websites will be the same, we’re just provided another means for distributing and publishing your content,” he adds.
In that sense, you could think of Maelstrom as a complement to what we know as web browsers today. “We also see the potential that there is an intermingling of HTTP and BitTorrent content across the web,” he says.
It sounds fairly radical to reimagine the entire server-based architecture of web browsing, but it comes at a time when we are seeing a lot of bumps and growing pains for businesses over more traditional services — beyond the reasons that consumers may have when they opt for P2P services.
BitTorrent argues that the whole net neutrality debate — where certain services that are data hungry like video service Netflix threaten to be throttled because of their strain on ISP networks — is one that could be avoided if those data-hungry services simply opted for different ways to distribute their files. Again, this highlights the idea of Maelstrom as a complement to what we use today.
“As a distributed web browser, Maelstrom can help relieve the burden put on the network,” BitTorrent says. “It can also help maintain a more neutral Internet as a gatekeeper would not be able to identify where such traffic is originating.