The Tragic Fall Of µTorrent
Just as the internet was finally planting its roots within computers all across the world in the early 2000s, people began to take advantage of it in ways which before weren’t possible. The World Wide Web was continuing to evolve, and so were the people using it. File sizes got bigger, but for many, internet speeds and bandwidth remained the same, which meant that downloading was going to become more difficult: What do we do? The answer to that question was found in a program which dominated computers of hardcore internet users throughout the duration of the decade: uTorrent.
This software took advantage of a revolutionary technology that was introduced only a couple of years prior. The technology in question is in the name: “torrenting,” and uTorrent was about to become the program that would popularize its use for the masses. Websites could now provide downloads the size of video game files at virtually no cost on the host’s end. The internet was about to change forever.
It wouldn’t take long for uTorrent to become the face of online file-sharing, the go-to for all your downloading needs. Want to finally get that one file you’ve been trying to find, for years? uTorrent was the solution…Until things took a turn. uTorrent was one of those programs that took a devastating fall in popularity, but not in the way that you might think. I mean, the numbers boldly state otherwise, but the people don’t. uTorrent went from being a pop-culture icon of the internet to something that nobody talked about overnight, due to a series of both long-term and short-term decisions which, for a long time, remained unrectified. What happened? What is the tragic story behind uTorrent? A program still quite popular, but arguably now in the shadow of its former self.
Now, there was a time during the internet’s history where the first thing that people would check during the day were their uTorrent downloads. Well for me, I like to check Morning Brew, the sponsor of this video. I was one of those people that would mindlessly browse social media way longer than I should, but what if you could turn that pastime into something educational? Morning Brew is here to help you with that. It is a free daily newsletter and it gets you up to speed on the latest and most breaking business news stories.
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Not only is it free, it literally took me less than 15 seconds to sign up. So, stay up to date and accurately informed on today’s news, with Morning Brew. The old tale behind uTorrent’s prevalence on the internet is a very curious one. As we mentioned, a series of very strange events lead to the program becoming both popular and unpopular at the same time.
The number of uTorrent downloads was affected, but not enough to effect competition. Though the program itself is just not talked about anymore, as if people don’t like associating themselves with it. Even the renowned package management system Ninite stopped servicing uTorrent in around 2013.
It has essentially become the Voldemort of the internet: The Bittorrent Client Who Must Not Be Named, and it all boils down to three things: poor marketing and business decisions, the lack of regard to adapting with constantly growing technology, and on top of all this, the need of such a program simply becoming less needed as time went on. As you could probably see, some of these factors are a bit outside of uTorrent’s control, but when accompanied with the other problems that were exclusive to uTorrent, they essentially act as the final nail in the coffin. It is important to note that the components surrounding uTorrent’s lack of involvement with adapting to the times and its controversial business changes, do go hand in hand, and it all has to do with how and why uTorrent was even created in the first place. It goes all the way back to 2001: the era of Napster and online file-sharing just prior to the release of the first iPod. Now, why is the iPod important? Well, this new wave of file-sharing was very convenient but had a huge somewhat unprecedented problem attached to it: piracy! And it first started online hugely with music files. Rather than going to the record store to buy their vinyls or CDs to get music, they were instead…stealing it! Oh, the horror! And the internet was still the wild west at this time, because it was so new.
There wasn’t really any legislation put in place for stopping it, so illegal music-sharing and Napster continued growing like a weed every day. But when the iPod came into play and introduced the ingenious iTunes store, Apple essentially found a compromise for music pirates. Getting an instant download to a song for just $0.99 was perfectly reasonable, and then before you know it copyright law was updated to take the internet into account, so good ole’ file-sharing Napster was now history. Of course, some form of online piracy goes way back to the usenet days, but Napster was the piracy cultural explosion, practically everyone was using it, which then lead to Limewire and then a bunch of other things.
But why would piracy mostly start out with music specifically, over other mediums of entertainment? Well, a big advantage that music had was its small file size. A 2-minute song was probably only a couple of megabytes. And on AOL dial-up technology, a file that size would, worst case scenario, maybe take 10-minutes to download. Standard quality episodes of a TV show or a whole movie on the other hand, could have been as big as 500MB, which could take up the whole day to download.
What if your sibling wanted to use the phone during that time? The download would get interrupted, and you’d likely have to start all over. You’d be out of luck, as that was really all you could reasonably download with only dial-up internet speeds at your disposal. The technology just wasn’t there yet. Until July 2, 2001. Bram Cohen, a student at the University of Buffalo created a program based on a technology that he invented just three months prior: BitTorrent. The technology that it used had the same name.
The BitTorrent protocol established a whole new technique of downloading files that was both secure and made download speeds not much of an issue. Okay, what does this have to do with uTorrent? We will get there, don’t worry. BitTorrent is derivative of an already existing technology called P2P or “peer-to-peer.” That’s what Napster was. With P2P, you basically connected to the host’s network, which would then find one other person also on that network that has the file you are looking for.
It would connect you to that person, share their file with you, and then download it to your computer. But what if the person on the other end just didn’t have a very good internet plan, and their upload speeds were slow? What if the government came in and shut down the network altogether (just like they did with Napster)? You wouldn’t have access to that download anymore, so what do you do? That’s when the BitTorrent protocol comes in. To put it in analogous terms, let’s say you come across this Andy Warhol style Twiggy painting series and now you just want it hanging up in your living room.
You happen to have a friend who has the exact same art series, and you ask them to make a photocopy of it for you. So your friend takes one photo off the wall, walks to the photocopier, makes a copy, puts it back in his living room, and then does that whole process again with the three other photos. That’s the P2P way of doing things. Now, let’s say your friend knows four other people who just so happen to have the same art series as well, and three of them agree to also photocopy one of their paintings. These are called seeders. The fifth guy doesn’t want to partake in that and just wants to keep the artwork on his wall for now.
He’s called a leecher. So instead of your friend taking 30 minutes to photocopy all the images himself, him and the three other people can divide up the task and photocopy one photo at the exact same time and get it done in 5 minutes, the copies are sent to you and the artwork is yours. Ta-da! That’s torrenting. Now in my example, the artwork goes from being a painted canvas to a paper photocopy, but with actual torrenting, it is an exact duplicate. Torrenting makes a copy of little bits and pieces of a file from multiple users and puts them all together to make the new copy of that file for the downloading user.
You’ve probably noticed that the more seeders there are, the faster the download is. This is why. Does one of the seeders have a really slow upload speed? Not a problem.
Just prioritize one of the faster ones. Since P2P only has one user it relies on, it can’t do that. The more people there are, the more likely there will be people with fast upload speeds, which would help increase the speed of your download. So if you wanted to download a 1GB file back in 2001, you could probably do it overnight while you were sleeping, and if someone ever needed to use the phone, it was much easier to just pause and resume a torrent download because of all the seeders. Interruptions weren’t a problem. Lastly, torrenting had the advantage of creating direct networks with each seeder, whereas P2P relied on the network provided by the host or website.
Taking down the network of a P2P sharing system is easy, but if you take down a network for a torrent, it can always just find another seeder. The network is so widely distributed, that a file you download from thepiratebay could connect you with a user that downloaded it from demonoid, as long as the files are exactly the same, since these websites don’t actually host the files. This is exactly why .torrent files are so small, even if the actual file is gigabytes big. They are simply just lines of code saying “okay this where you go to get the actual file, now start downloading.”
Websites hosting these torrent files didn’t really have to worry about bandwidth anymore. With the introduction of the program BitTorrent came a whole new way of downloading and a whole new community of torrenters. Now alternative bittorrent clients were starting to come up, and that’s when uTorrent finally comes in. Now that might have seemed like a bit of a tangent, but the historical context is crucial to understanding how uTorrent came about. As torrenting got more popular, it also became more commercial, corporate.
A lot of BitTorrent clients at the time were essentially bloatware and some of them even started hosting ads. The programs themselves took up unnecessary amounts of disk space and large amounts of power with sub-par performance, only for some to even install adware to your computer. Well, in 2004, Swedish programmer Ludvig Strigeus was determined to make the ultimate BitTorrent client. It would be lightweight, non-resource-intensive, and more efficient! After about a year of on and off coding, uTorrent was born...or technically “MicroTorrent” or myu-torrent, which is the name of the letter in the Greek alphabet, but because this letter at the beginning of the word resembles a “U” people just started calling it that.
The true pronunciation of the word is debated, but since the actual creator of the program himself calls it uTorrent, I’m just going to stick with that for the rest of this video. And very soon after, the program would be gladly embraced by the community for its simplicity. But then in December of 2006, the company BitTorrent, Inc. which created the BitTorrent program and the protocol itself, sees the potential of uTorrent and then buys it; they are now the new owners. Over the years, uTorrent’s market share in the BitTorrent client community just continued to grow bigger, even surpassing the OG programs.
By 2009, uTorrent skyrocketed, and then Limewire’s dissolution in 2010 only helped them grow even further. It was only a matter of time that uTorrent had practically become a social monopoly. It was the go-to for all your BitTorrent client needs. uTorrent was the Google, and all the other programs were the Bing and Ask.com. Having such a valuable resource at their hands, BitTorrent Inc. wanted to figure out a way
to make this grow even faster and make even more money than they already were. The only way to do that was to change the program up a bit, make it more commercially viable. uTorrent was free, BitTorrent Inc. made all their money hosting ads on their website, which naturally got a lot of traffic from people going there to download the program, but what if the company found a way to actually make money from the program itself, while also keeping it free? Well, uTorrent made a decision with one update, particularly version 3, that would prove to be extremely controversial. BitTorrent Inc. saw that they were making a lot of money with the ads on their website. So, they decided to now put ads in the actual program itself.
Naturally, this upset a lot of people, but the real reasons for why are a lot more nuanced than they probably appear at face value, and it really all has to do with how torrenting works. Keep in mind that torrenting itself is not illegal. It can actually be a very convenient alternative to downloading very, very big files.
Torrenting copyrighted content is illegal, but that’s what torrenting is mostly used for, and the reason for this makes total sense. Let’s briefly go back to the painting example. Let’s say that the creator of these paintings, me, found out that your friend was making photocopies of my work without my permission. I run down to his house and I demand him to stop making these copies.
And because I am so scary and intimidating, he backs off he stops doing it. Thing is, I don’t know that the 3 other people that own copies even exist. So yes while I did successfully shut down a network, all I did was just bring the seed count down from 4 to 3. The photocopies will take longer, but you will still get them eventually. This is why so many people use torrenting for piracy.
It is very hard to regulate and shut down because of how distributed these networks. If the Pirate Bay were to suddenly shut down tomorrow, that doesn’t really change anything. It might become more challenging to find, but as long as you can get that same .torrent file from another server (that’s what magnet links typically do), you’ll still be able to download the file.
These circumstances have created a stigma for torrenting as a practice, and that stigma has led to regular companies not wanting to associate with or sponsor these products. Only malicious products want to sponsor other malicious (or COULD be malicious) products, so you get malware sponsoring them instead. And so the reason is clear why something like this would happen to a program like uTorrent. These companies have to make money somehow especially if the programs are free. This actually sort of ties in to how ads on YouTube work.
People like to complain about YouTube creators putting ads on their videos, and I get it, no one likes to sit through commercials when they’re watching TV either. But it’s important to keep in mind that, depending on the quality of the video, a single YouTube video alone can sometimes even cost several hundred dollars to make. You have equipment, software, media licensing fees, just to name a few. The creator is running a business at the end of the day and they have to make up for that loss from their production budget, so how do they do it? Well, through ads, sponsorships, merchandise, a whole array of things. When you are providing content for free you kind of have to sell your soul a little bit, and uTorrent is no exception to that, but it just depends on who you sell your soul too.
And that was uTorrent’s first problem. People weren’t as upset about it just having ads, BitTorrent clients already had ads on them. It’s that uTorrent ads were basically malware and adware.
Not to mention some of them were…ooh la la ads, not taking into account that children might be using these programs. It eventually got to the point where uTorrent would surreptitiously download programs to the user’s computer without their full consent. Being a torrenting program, uTorrent had an unfair reputation of only being used for pirating, so a lot of the bigger more main stream companies that were uninformed about how torrenting worked, saw programs like uTorrent as just a can of worms that shouldn’t be opened. The malware companies however, had no problem sponsoring them. Ever notice how when you go on one of those watch free movies websites, you are just bombarded with pop-up ads and tons of malicious programs? That’s because these programs know that this is their target audience, because these websites aren’t exactly legal, and are not part of a professional environment, sort of anything goes. So malware providers can work more efficiently in that kind of environment.
And although uTorrent was a perfectly legal program, that stigma surrounding torrenting in general caught the attention of these malware companies. uTorrent’s mistake was choosing to cave in to these malicious sponsors. Programs liked Vuze hosted ads that were pretty normal, uTorrent’s on the other hand, were just weird. They could have easily followed the approach that Vuze took with the kind of ads they were displaying, but they just…didn’t. And long time users of uTorrent felt kind of insulted by this, especially with why the program started in the first place.
uTorrent started out specifically being a lightweight BitTorrent client, that was the appeal for the people, and consequently, other programs began to take note of that, and internet technology started to evolve with making these kinds of programs lightweight. uTorrent took a very interesting, ironic turn, and began to become more bloated as time went on, due to all the unwanted programs and ads attached to it. It basically began reversing its progress in the midst of an internet revolution that it arguably started. These changes were introduced in version three, so a lot of people were either reverting back to version 2.2.1 (often considered the last “good” version of uTorrent), or just started
switching to another client altogether, since that version was slowly becoming outdated. Over the years, users slowly started to question uTorrent’s credibility, but the last straw, the incident that would make everything start to crumble and even make the headlines of multiple news sites, would occur in 2015. People started to notice that uTorrent was using a lot more CPU power than usual, and it would soon be revealed that this was because uTorrent secretly installed a cryptocurrency software and was mining bitcoin, using people’s computers. Users were livid, saying that what they did was just unforgivable, they would never use uTorrent ever again. These bad changes created a program that was just no longer adapting to the internet’s move towards lightweight efficiency. BitTorrent, Inc. saw the kind of backlash that this was all getting, and quickly backpedaled
on their decisions. The mining program was removed and so were the inappropriate ads, but for many, the damage was done. This did lead to a huge fall in uTorrent's reputation, but it wasn't the end...actually, not even close. Despite all this calamity and practically every article discussing uTorrent bringing up these problems, uTorrent’s market share is still going up.
Why is that? It’s a couple of things. Firstly, a lot of newcomers within the torrenting community are likely unaware of this past malfeasance that the program had on its hands. When they google for a BitTorrent client, uTorrent is the first result, and since it’s the top one that advertises being lightweight, that’s the first one they’re gonna download, without questioning it. It’s at the top of the results for a reason, there can’t be anything wrong with it.
Secondly, a lot of it is “popularity inertia.” uTorrent started off as the most popular program, and will stay as the most popular program. That’s why it’s still one of the top results when you search for it.
People are just used to it. uTorrent is much safer now than it was, but a lot of people will just never forget what happened, and now that the alternatives they have switched to do the same thing but don’t have ads, AND are open source, they just see no reason to go back. The current uTorrent is mostly people who are new or just weren’t that affected by what happened, but had these things never happened, uTorrent’s market share could arguably be even bigger, than it already is. For many, uTorrent became the very program that it swore to destroy back in 2005, and to them, that was just unforgivable. The last thing to really bring down uTorrent’s appeal to online users is something that actually affected everyone. Online piracy is at a decline.
In 2006, BitTorrent file-sharing accounted for 70% of all internet traffic, by 2011, that number dropped to 19%, and this is because of the rise of streaming services. These companies parallel what iTunes did in 2001, they made a commercial compromise with online pirates. People could live with spending $0.99 on a song, and now you can get access to pretty
much every movie and TV show you’ve ever watched, for what, $10 a month? Same goes for music programs like Spotify, or gaming services like steam, or making once super expensive programs now subscription based. The commercial alternatives were now more convenient, and so torrenting just wasn’t as necessary anymore. And that was another reason not to use uTorrent. But with streaming services now becoming a bit oversaturated and more expensive every day, perhaps we might see people rebel this and therefore see pirating make a comeback.
Only time will tell. Let me make it cleat that this video is not a hit piece on uTorrent or BitTorrent, Inc. as a company by any means. It is simply a discussion on how one bad marketing decision can cause significant collateral damage in the long-term, which can make it quite difficult to make reparations, so you should always be careful. The fall of uTorrent is an example of how not evolving with changing technology or people’s change in behavior online can lead to the social irrelevancy of what was once considered a great product.
uTorrent may have gotten the money and the results that it wanted, but at the price of a long, dearly devoted community. Thank you so much for watching. If you enjoyed this video, please subscribe, and hit the notification bell, so that you never miss a future video.