BitTorrent launched its next-generation torrent client in a public beta today, offering people a unique system for not just sharing content via torrents but also for socializing the experience and turning the tool into one with deep content discovery hooks. BitTorrent 8 beta (download) contains one enormous change from the alpha that launched in March: personal content channels, which streamline the torrent creation and sharing process to allow you to share high-quality versions of your homemade videos, audio, and photos with friends.

BitTorrent 8 beta provides new ways to discover legally shared files, including from popular sources like the TED lectures. (Credit: BitTorrent)

As announced at CES 2011, the implementation is unique to BitTorrent, and an integral part of its push to emphasize the use of the torrent protocol for legally shared files. BitTorrent currently has more than 100 million active users spread across BitTorrent, uTorrent, and uTorrent for Mac, BitTorrent Chief Strategist Shahi Ghanem said during an interview at BitTorrent's San Francisco office. He also said the company holds 80 percent of the torrenting market.

The new channels feature benefits from leveraging current file-sharing link-distribution techniques as used in YouSendIt to share both the torrent program and the torrent itself. It also removes the requirement that videos be compressed before being posted to public Web sites, while providing a more controlled environment to share personal files privately. "We're doing the inverse of cloud storage. It's cloud storage, but it's distributed cloud storage," Ghanem said when explaining how BitTorrent channel users will share files in the channels they subscribe to.

To ensure that a channel retains its health, which is a way of saying that it always has a minimum number of people seeding the files, Ghanem said BitTorrent will guarantee the minimum number of active seeds. Said BitTorrent lead engineer Thomas Ramplelberg, "We expect the content to be fast-distributed and short-lived on our servers." He also said that while the company had yet to figure out how many seeds would equal the minimum number, the current number was around seven.

How it works
Click the arrow link in the upper-right corner, just below the Options menu, to create a channel. You then customize the channel, including choosing a channel avatar that will appear in the channel bar above the main interface; add files to upload; invite others via e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter to the channel; and publicly leave messages for and respond to channel subscribers.

BitTorrent 8 beta also includes a new personal channel feature for sharing personal files among a small network of friends or a large network of colleagues. (Credit: BitTorrent)

When you first invite somebody to the channel, the link that gets sent out detects if they have BitTorrent 8. If they don't, the link downloads the beta and automatically subscribes them to the channel. If they do, it simply adds the channel. The channel acts as a grouping mechanism for the torrents contained within. Each file added gets its own torrent, so that subscribers don't have to fiddle with choosing files within a torrent.

Files can be added to a channel over time, allowing channel owners to create content themes. The parent of a child on a baseball team, for example, can add new videos throughout the season, and the parents of other children on the team can be invited to download them at their convenience.

Artist-endorsed content
There are also public, legal channels for file distribution under the "Discover Content" button on the left of the interface. BitTorrent divides these two types of files into the aforementioned personal content channels, and artist-endorsed content. The artist endorsed content so far includes the TED conference videos, the Bill Gates-endorsed Khan Academy free education series, Make Magazine, ClearBits-featured media, and the music discovery tool Musicshake.

The punk-pop band Sick of Sarah also has a channel of its own, illustrating that musicians can share high-quality versions of their videos and music. The band's latest album recently passed the 1 million torrent downloads mark, while recent legal access to the 2008 movie "The Yes Men" got it more torrent downloads on BitTorrent than it had HBO viewers.

Personal channels in BitTorrent 8 beta include commenting and social networking features. (Credit: BitTorrent, Inc.)

Ghanem also noted that the beta has basic monetization features built-in via a PayPal link.

Video playback is a major concern not just for browsers, which are a more generalized content delivery tool, but for BitTorrent as well. The cost of licensing codecs for streaming and playback can be steep financially and cause otherwise unnecessary bloat to a program. Ghanem said that BitTorrent has plans for a "global transcoding strategy," and currently employs both H.264 wrapped in MKV, and MPEG4 ASP wrapped in AVI. However, he noted, "we'll probably use our own propriety 4CC code," eventually.

BitTorrent intends the channels to be shared among both private and public social groups, but if the channel link was accidentally posted in public the channel creator could delete the channel without affecting the locally stored files or the files already downloaded by channel subscribers.

The beta is available only in English and only for Windows computers. Also, at least during the beta phase of development, the channels feature in BitTorrent 8 will not impose file size restrictions and is free to use. Ghanem said he was unable to comment on whether the services would continue to be free of restrictions after BitTorrent 8 final was released.