Toronto’s OpenCola lives on in Swarmcast

(cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

Given the kind of publicity that Bram Cohen and BitTorrent have recently gotten by announcing deals with Warner Brothers and other movie studios and content owners, it’s worth noting that a Toronto-based company got there long before BitTorrent — at least in terms of the technology, if not the public awareness.

OpenCola was a technology startup with a peer-to-peer (P2P) application of the same name that was similar to Kazaa and Limewire, but years before either of those would become household names. On Thursday, the successor to OpenCola announced a $5-million financing deal with two Japanese venture-capital funds.

In the late 1990s, a young programmer named Justin Chapweske had developed a technology he called Swarmcast that was designed for sending large files over the Internet. It did this by chopping each file up into tiny bits, distributing those bits to many different hosts, and then allowing users to download those bits from any location — at which point the software would reassemble them into the original file. In other words, exactly the same process used by BitTorrent, except that Swarmcast was developed in 1999 and BitTorrent didn’t appear until 2002.


Justin wound up joining Toronto-based OpenCola — whose founders included Cory Doctorow, one of the editors behind BoingBoing. Unfortunately, that coincided with a downturn in technology markets, and OpenCola did not survive. The technology was sold to Waterloo, Ont.-based Open Text Corp. Justin Chapweske later started another company called Onion Networks and eventually reacquired the rights to the Swarmcast technology.

So why is BitTorrent a relatively well-known name and Swarmcast is not? Because the two took different approaches to commercializing their software. Bram Cohen chose the “open source” route and released the code for his software so that anyone could use or distribute it (so long as they didn’t charge money for it or claim it as their own). It quickly became the technology of choice for downloading everything from cracked software and illegally copied movies to pornography, although it was also used for distributing large files such as the various flavours of the Linux operating system. And that in turn got the attention of content owners.

Swarmcast, meanwhile, decided to focus on working behind the scenes with companies that would have an interest in distributing large amounts of content over the Internet — including distributing digital films to movie theatres. The company also helps power, the major-league baseball service, which distributes huge quantities of video and audio to baseball fans. Not as sexy as doing deals with Hollywood movie studios, but not bad either.

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