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If you haven’t heard yet, a beta of Adobe's Flash Player Version 10 is available for download. It offers a host of new features, but one has implications that blow the others out of the water: built-in peer-to-peer. That’s right, all the tools necessary to build a p2p client will be built into the Flash plug-in.
Everyone who installs Flash 10 (and before long, that will be practically everyone) will soon have peer-to-peer clients running in their web browser of choice. What does this do? First, it strengthens the case for p2p by putting existing technology in the hands of, well, everyone. We know that these tools are being used more and more for legal, non-infringing, copyright-owner-endorsed purposes. But when everyone and their brother is viewing legally distributed videos through p2p, it’s going to be a lot harder to make the argument that the technology is the bad guy.
Second, increased p2p usage is going to further increase demand for upload capacity in home broadband. This will put more strain on networks with limited upstream bandwidth, pushing more network upgrades, and potentially increasing the demand for network management tools by ISPs. At the same time, it will demonstrate why picking and choosing individual protocols is not a legitimate way to manage an ISP’s network – both because of its implications for competition and because of the was in which it slows innovation and hurts users.
There are a lot of uses of ubiquitous p2p besides video distribution of course, and Hank Williams mentions a couple in his blog post: things like friend-to-friend file transfers and rapid prototyping of new (and perhaps innovative) applications. And since the details are still sketchy, and there are some arguments that Flash’s p2p won’t be all that (check out Williams’ follow-up post for details). But I think Adobe would be crazy not to make it is powerful and flexible as possible, especially in the video distribution world. Adobe owns embedded web video. And if Adobe can offer companies like YouTube the capability to reduce their bandwidth costs (by sharing that burden with users) and improve user experience, why wouldn’t Adobe do so?
In the end, Flash p2p won’t be the only p2p out there. Opera has a BitTorrent client built in, and Vuze offers a media player with BitTorrent under the hood. Both of these applications will continue to have their place, and innovation will continue elsewhere. Client-server flash video won't be disappearing either. But the sheer number of people who install Flash makes this a wake-up call for those who think p2p should or will go away any time soon.