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Smartphones are the new PCs: they’re fast, they’re powerful, they’re always online and they’re always with you. But with the advent of 4G network speeds, sophisticated operating systems and apps looms the threat of piracy via file sharing: will BitTorrent data come to represent more than half of all mobile traffic, as it has done for ISPs the world over? We’ve scoured the murkiest corners of the web, crunched numbers and spoken to those involved – read on to find out where we’re headed.

How is it done?

On the face of it, mobile piracy should be a huge problem: unlimited data tariffs can still be had, American 4G LTE networks now offer faster real world speeds than most fixed connections and dual-core phones are fast enough to power even laptops today. As early as 2006, analysts were estimating that mobile piracy cost record labels and content providers more than £2bn ($3.4bn) in revenues – and that was before the age of the smartphone really dawned.

Currently, the leading method for sharing copyright material, be it songs, movies or even eBooks, is through a file sharing application that connects you to other users with the file. You’ll likely have heard of BitTorrent, the legal protocol that powers most of these applications, which according to a late 2010 report make up 53.3 percent of all upstream traffic in North America, with similar figures observed in other developed nations worldwide.

Until recently, this technology has naturally been limited to desktop PCs and laptops capable of running such programs around the clock. In recent years though, a series of BitTorrent clients for smartphone operating systems has emerged, first on Symbian S60 (LINK ), still supported on the company’s new phones today, and then on the currently exploding Google Android mobile OS.

Fire up the Android Market and you’ll find at least nine different native Android BitTorrent client apps available for download (as opposed to remote clients, which can be used to monitor downloads on your PC from your phone), with prices varying from free to $4.99 (£3) – there’s also another popular file sharing Android app, FrostWire, which does not use BitTorrent to connect users.

Install one of these, and with a quick web search you can be downloading anything from an unreleased Halo game to the latest movies and TV shows, in HD and stripped of adverts. These can then be played right on the handset, or even streamed to a TV.

The scale of the problem

While precise figures are unavailable, AndroLib’s download estimates (as of 9/5/2011) give us some insight into just how many people share media through BitTorrent, and they’re larger than you might expect. Peer-to-peer (P2P) filesharing apps have been downloaded 1.21million times: FrostWire makes up the lion’s share of this number with an estimated 688,986 downloads – which equates to three downloads every single minute since launch in October – with tTorrent and aDownloader also grabbing six figure numbers. tTorrent too is pulling at least one download per minute worldwide.

However, based on our talks with the developers of these apps, it’s likely this figure is much higher. We understand that FrostWire has seen nearer 800,000 downloads, while Red Torrent has seen 60,000 installs and aBTC has had 10,000 – in the case of the last two, these figures are orders of magnitude higher than their AndroLib estimates. And then of course, these apps themselves are the victims of piracy – these estimates only include downloads from the Android Market itself.

Activity may be frighteningly high too: one client’s developer reports that active users make up a quarter of all their downloads. If that holds true across the board, there could be well over 300,000 people using P2P networks on their mobiles right now. Given Android’s phenomenal growth right now, (Google says 350,000 Android handsets are being activated every day), you can expect that to grow rapidly.

Our calculations have also not taken into account piracy on the iPhone. Apple doesn’t allow for P2P apps, or even remote clients, but a BitTorrent client app called Torrentula is available to jailbreak users on the Cydia app store (developer Albert Schulz could not be reached for comment) and the odd program does slip through the net. Last month, a free app called Any MP3 Downloader, which does just that, briefly appeared on the iTunes App Store, overtaking Angry Birds to become No. 1 download on the store. Apple does not remotely delete these apps from users’ phones once they have been pulled from the store.

Juniper Research analyst Daniel Ashdown certainly sees it becoming a growing problem. Last month he published a report in which he highlighted the threat of mobile P2P piracy, even hinting that it could require mobile networks to take action.

“File sharing is such a massive proportion of traffic on fixed lines networks, that if that migrates to the mobile networks it could put a lot of strain on the operators networks,” he tells us. “With operators launching 4G networks…as with 3G it’s going to gradually spread around the world, it’s going to become a much more viable alternative to file share via the mobile network.”

He points to the convenience of modern smartphones, as well as their huge storage capability today. “The mobile handset is the best suited for consuming music,” he says. “A lot of high end smartphones have around 32GB of memory and I think that’s enough for most people’s music collections.”

Red Torrent developer Michael Isaacson agrees, and sees a future where smartphones and tablets are the predominate source of all consumed media, legal or not.

“With the rise of 4G speeds, more powerful phones, and tablets they have the potential to become a large part of the piracy issue,” he says. “The family PC will be less and less prominent as everyone in the family will likely have a powerful phone or tablet of their own. Once a fairly common connection standard is in place for this sort of thing, I expect it to take off.”

Of course, it’s debatable just how large a proportion of file share data is under copyright. File sharing itself is not illegal, but one only has to take a look at the Recent Torrents section of The Pirate Bay’s website to see what is being seeded: everything from Lady Gaga’s latest single to a copy of Hollywood hit The Adjustment Bureau, not yet out on DVD and Blu-ray. Red Torrent developer Isaacson says he believes his app is used to download rips of TV shows above all else, while the aDownloader app provides a sophisticated search engine to browse through your choice of torrent sites, including the infamous Pirate Bay and another famous scourge of rights associations, isoHunt.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), British Phongraphic Industry (BPI) and the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) all either declined to comment, or were unable to provide estimates as to how much lost revenue these applications may have resulted in.

The legal app fightback

Although filesharing on mobiles is may prove to be a growing issue, it’s actually one where the content providers may have beaten the pirates already. Legitimate video and music apps are already providing a solid experience that’s preferable to BitTorrent on your blower, according to Stuart Dredge, a digital media journalist at Music Ally.

“I don’t think it’s the dreadful problem for music it could be seen as,” he says. “You can find music for free but they’re not really good music apps, compared with Spotify, iTunes, the legal stuff – they’re much better.”

Several developers we spoke to also agreed. “With a Netflix app coming soon [to Android], and hopefully Hulu support on the horizon, pirating video for mobile use should decline,” said Isaacson.

Another popular P2P Android app developer, who wished to remain anonymous, concurs. “I think the mobile culture is very different from that of the desktop culture. The majority of mobile users have been taught to install apps and acquire content through syndicated app stores,” he says.

“It’s more convenient than ever to access legal content and as 4G and faster wireless networks become ubiquitous the music consumption culture is moving towards streaming, which goes hand in hand with limited storage that you would rather use to store pictures and videos.”

Some networks too already throttle or block BitTorrent traffic on their networks, which can be accessed through laptops via mobile broadband dongles, making the process unappealing.

Even the smartphone OS developers seem to have cottoned on: Microsoft has already made clear that it won’t accept file sharing apps on its Windows Phone Marketplace. A Google spokesperson declined to comment when we asked to explain the company’s approval policy on P2P apps, but we’ve also discovered that Google has removed at least one file sharing app from the Android Market, Rapid Download!, which allowed users to download files from RapidShare, another haven for pirated materials.

Ultimately, Dredge says, mobile phone piracy will never go away, but it can be sidelined. “The key to fighting them is not to play Whack-A-Mole as they come out, but keep improving legal services. You can’t stop people developing ways to pirate music and you can’t stop people from using them…that’s where you’ll make money, not worrying how much money you’ll lose to piracy.”

  • Allen

    Digital watermarking of files, and security on phones to detect pirated materials.

    • Nibinear

      Would be awful.

  • Nibinear

    This isn’t really a game changer is it? This is really just something which makes BT more convenient rather than alters things in an evolutionary sense. It lets people get files which can then be played on a TV using a micro hdmi output on the phone. This is quite nice but is a small step forward. It’s also open to AP2P attack as there is little customization on a phone which would support IP blocking for example.

    What would be more interesting would be something based on bluetooth or similar phone-to-phone technologies. Then sharing would be possible with friends / strangers within 100m or so or until they moved out of range. It would allow information to move around in the community without any centralised system of control. Then laws would have to be drafted to make the sharing of files legal as there could be no further possibility of stopping it.

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