P2P in Flash 10 Beta — the Questions Facing a YouTube, Skype, and BitTorrent Killer

May 21, 2008

As I’ve reported, the inclusion of P2P in Flash 10 Beta represents a fundamental disruption of the Internet platform. As with all disruptions, however, this one will progress in fits and starts. Flash 10’s details limit the full power of its P2P features. While features like VoIP will be fully enabled, it will take some ingenuity to turn Flash 10 into a more generalized P2P platform. Here are the issues:

1) Flash Media Server (FMS)

You’ll need Flash Media Server (FMS) to take advantage of Flash P2P. At $995 for the “Streaming Server” and $4,500 for the “Interactive Server”, FMS is beyond the reach of most developers working on their own projects, severely limiting Flash P2P’s disruptive potential. In an ideal world, the new P2P protocols would be openly specified, allowing open source developers to write their own implementations. As it stands now, a single company controls a potentially vital part of the Internet infrastructure, and encryption will likely thwart the initial reverse engineering efforts of open source groups like Red5.

2) No Flash Player in the Background

As David Barrett (formerly of Akamai/Red Swoosh) has emphasized on the Pho List, Flash Player only runs when it’s loaded in your browser. As soon as you navigate to another page, Flash can no longer act as a P2P server. P2P programs like Red Swoosh, BitTorrent, and LittleShoot don’t have this limitation, and it means Flash can’t save web sites as much bandwidth as those full-blown applications can. This limits but does not eliminate Flash’s threat to CDNs. Sure, you could get around this using AIR, but that creates another major barrier to adoption.

3) Usability

While Flash 10 has the ability to save files to your computer and to load them from your computer (essential for P2P), it pops up a dialog box each time that happens. While this is an important security measure, it cripples Flash 10’s ability to mimic BitTorrent because you’d have dialogs popping up all the time to make sure you as a user had authorized any uploads of any part of a file.

4) Limited APIs

While all the required technology is there in the Real Time Media Flow Protocol (RTMFP), ActionScript’s API limits some of the P2P potential of Flash 10. P2P downloading breaks up files into smaller chunks so you can get them from multiple other computers. Flash 10 can only save complete files to your computer — you can’t save in small chunks. As a result, you’d have to use ActionScript very creatively to achieve BitTorrent or LittleShoot-like distribution or to significantly lower bandwidth bills for sites serving videos. It might be possible, but you’d have to work some magic.

So, that’s the deal. There’s still a lot more documentation coming our way from Adobe, so there are undoubtedly useful nuggets yet to be discovered.

Even given all these limitations, however, the key point to remember is the Internet has a new, immensely powerful protocol in its arsenal: Matthew Kaufman and Michael Thornburgh’s Real Time Media Flow Protocol (RTMFP). While Flash might use it primarily for direct streaming between two computers now (think VoIP), it introduces the potential for so much more.

Keep your helmet on.