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Broadcatching
RSS + BitTorrent = Tivo for your PC
BY JESS KILBY

Itís been two and a half years since Iíve owned a TV. For the most part, this has been a Good Thing, but there are some aspects of life-with-telly that I miss. I admit to spending entire weekends at my parentís house flipping between episodes of Trading Spaces and American Chopper. And hey ó The Office is finally in season two over here? Gimme that damn remote.

You see, I had high hopes for the much-vaunted convergence between TV and the PC that was being predicted a few years back. Wouldnít it be great to download the latest episode of your favorite TV show the same night it aired, then watch your own high-quality digital copy of the program on your PC whenever you wanted?

But the concept of TV-PC convergence zigged where it should have zagged, and instead of WinTivo we got WebTV. Internet browsing via the idiot box ó not exactly what we were hoping for.

Things began looking up when the Personal Digital Recorder concept (Tivo and its ilk) finally hit the scene a couple of years ago. But PDRs still require a TV, and some of us just canít bear to buy another box. Weíre waiting patiently (or not-so) for that final step in our promised media convergence, the technological evolution that will once and for all make television ownership unnecessary for the pop-culture aficionado. The good news: That moment may have arrived.

Like any application still in its infancy, broadcatching (as itís been dubbed) is still a bit of a confusing muddle. It makes use of trendy new technology, flirts with issues of piracy, and as of yet has only been implemented for users of the pay-to-play blogging tool Radio UserLand. Those caveats aside, here are the basics:

Broadcatching in its currently proposed form marries the peer-to-peer file sharing program BitTorrent with the increasingly popular RSS (Really Simple Syndication) protocol. BitTorrent is often lumped in the same category as p2p programs like Kazaa, but it features a few fundamental differences that make it ideally suited to broadcatching.

First, BitTorrentís algorithm is designed specifically for the transfer of very large files, such as games, movies, or episodes of TV shows. These bulky files are broken down into many small pieces, so users can simultaneously download a torrent of bits from multiple users, which the BT client reassembles into a cohesive whole for the end user to watch, play, or do with as he or she pleases.

Second, BT allows users to download these file packets from each other before the person being downloaded from has even finished their own download of the requested file, thus enabling even faster propagation of popular files through the network. The more people who have a file, the faster that file can be downloaded, which increases the number of people likely to have the file, etc.

BTís ability to rapidly distribute large, popular files means itís the perfect venue for sharing timely content like television shows. Putting aside copyright issues, that brings us to RSS.

Perhaps youíve begun to notice orange "XML" or "RSS" buttons showing up on your favorite blogs and news sites. And perhaps your curiosity finally got the better of you, and you decided to get hip to this whole RSS thing. If so, youíve downloaded one of the many free RSS aggregators out there, and are now familiar with its interface, which looks and acts pretty much like an email application. Youíve realized how easy it is to "subscribe" to the RSS feeds of your favorite sites, which is as easy as dragging that orange button on the desired site into a specified area in your aggregator. And now, presto, the aggregator checks the RSS files of your subscribed sites every hour (or less frequently, depending on your preferences) and notifies you of updates. You donít even need to visit the site to read the update ó just check your aggregatorís inbox.

So hereís where it gets fun. Another distinction between BitTorrent and Kazaa-like applications is that BT lacks a search mode ó you pretty much have to know where to look for new files. This keeps the community small and trusted. It also means you have to search out Web sites that host torrent files, bookmark those sites, return to them to check for updates, and click on any new file you want in order to launch a BitTorrent download.

Now imagine if your favorite provider of torrent files also provided an RSS feed of those files, and your RSS aggregator had the ability to recognize a torrent file and launch BitTorrent automatically. You could subscribe to the RSS feed provided by that new indie-film producer you just heard about, the network that airs your favorite TV show, the brother-in-law who loves to shoot home movies. You could set this broadcatching system to check for and download new files while you sleep, and wake up to fresh content on your hard drive.

Expect to see broadcatching scripts become available for aggregators other than Radio UserLandís as the idea gains popularity, and keep your fingers crossed that the technology doesnít get squashed by copyright fanatics before it can mature. Because a proprietary broadcatching application that let me use my PC to watch all those episodes of Firefly that I missed because I donít own a TV? Yeah, Iíd buy that.

Jess Kilby can be reached at jesskilby@yahoo.com

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

BitTorrent: bitconjurer.org/BitTorrent/

Radio UserLand: radio.userland.com

RSS: blogspace.com/rss

More information about the broadcatching application discussed in this article can be found at http://grumet.net/rssBitTorrentIntegration/radioClient.html

 

The Technophilia archives.

Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
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