BRAM COHEN

He’s a mildly autistic college drop-out who depends on donations to feed his family, but Bram Cohen has Hollywood studios running scared.

That is because Mr Cohen is the brains behind BitTorrent, a successful peer-to-peer programme that has become a wildly popular way for internet users to share illegal copies of movies and music.

Studio executives fear BitTorrent, one of the most disruptive new pieces of technology, could hit movie sales - just as the original Napster or KaZaA caused music revenues to tumble. BitTorrent users can download big movie files much more quickly than with other file-sharing software. Parts of files from many different sources are downloaded at once, eradicating bottlenecks that bog down other file-sharing networks.

And as BitTorrent downloaders must upload the file at the same time, the most popular files move more efficiently through the network.

BitTorrent has proved difficult to tame.

The network is highly decentralised save for a series of independent tracker sites that direct traffic to their intended destination. And for every tracker site the entertainment industry shuts down, a new one seems to pop up.

Furthermore, because it is open-source software, the programme is widely available and continually evolving.

Mr Cohen claims he did not write BitTorrent to get rich or abet internet piracy but rather to create a free speech tool that can aid the distribution of many types of content at little cost.

Still, BitTorrent’s popularity among internet pirates has put Mr Cohen squarely in the sights of top studios and record labels, which have launched a series of lawsuits aimed at shutting down the network.

The self-taught programmer says he is now sketching out a business plan for the peer-to-peer network.

www.bittorrent.com

By Scott Morrison

Joi Ito
JOI ITO

There aren’t many people who can claim the distinction of having dropped out of college twice.

Joi Ito, a Japanese venture capitalist and entrepreneur who spent much of his youth in the US, walked away from both Tufts University and the University of Chicago, choosing instead to become a DJ - first in Chicago and eventually in Tokyo.

One of Mr Ito’s first brushes with the internet came when he lent his bathroom to PSINet to accommodate the internet service provider’s first node in Japan.

With a leased line in his toilet and an early interest in networking technology, he was well placed at the forefront when the World Wide Web came along.

He went on to set up and run PSINet Japan and Infoseek Japan.

These days, Ito has become a leading advocate and financier of what he calls “the sharing economy - an economy of people wanting to create things and share them with each other.”

The blogging phenomenom, he says, reflects “the original idea of the internet” - to make it easier for people to share information and connect with each other.

Though expansive in his vision, Mr Ito is also a realist: as with the first phase of the internet, he says, blogging’s promise of a more democratic, decentralised web may not be enough to prevent a return to centralisation and dominance by a handful of powerful interests.

Mr Ito’s investments, through his venture capital firm Neoteny and personally, have included Flickr, a photo-sharing website that has just been sold to Yahoo!; Technorati, a search engine for weblogs; SocialText, which is trying to introduce the idea of Wikis, or communal web pages, to enterprise software; and Six Apart, which created the blogging software Movable Type.

www.infoseek.co.jp

By Richard Waters

Jon Von Tetzchner
JON VON TETZCHNER

Creativity is clearly in Jon von Tetzchner’s genes. Not only is the software entrepreneur the great-grandson of Sigvaldi Kaldalons, one of Iceland’s most beloved composers, but he is also doing much to fulfil one of the mobile phone world’s most elusive promises: giving users a genuine internet experience on their handset.

You may already have a smartphone, but if your Nokia or Motorola is fitted with a web browser from Mr von Tetzchner’s Oslo-based company Opera Software, you’re probably using a smarter phone.

Experts have hailed it as faster, smaller and compliant with more standards than any other mobile browser out there.

Opera’s browser works across operating platforms and uses a technology called Small Screen Rendering that allows you to zoom so that an entire web page fits the size of your screen.

That means no more scrolling, says Mr von Tetzchner, the 38-year-old co-founder and chief executive of 10-year old Opera Software. It also means no more walled gardens for its users, and therefore presents a genuine threat to operators still trying to develop profitable business models for data services that usually involve force-feeding pre-selected online content rather than the freedom of a browser.

Born in Reykjavik, Mr von Tetzchner moved to study at Oslo University and eventually joined the dominant Norwegian telecommunications group Telenor, where the software that would become Opera’s desktop browser was already being developed as an internal communications tool.

Opera bought the rights when Telenor deregulated and set about developing a cross-platform desktop browser that was launched in 1999, and that later spawned a wireless version.

It can also be downloaded from Opera’s website for $39 by users of 20 other smartphones. The company says about 1m have been downloaded.

www.opera.com

By Rupini Bergstrom

ChenTianqiao
CHEN TIANQIAO

In a 2003 report announcing the appointment of Chen Tianqiao to the national congress of China’s Communist Youth League, the state-run Xinhua news agency described the internet entrepreneur as the man “known as the Chinese Bill Gates”. Sceptics would say the nickname was hugely premature: Mr Chen, 32, runs a successful online games service rather than controlling a computer operating system monopoly.

But the hyperbole was understandable, for Mr Chen’s rapid rise graphically demonstrates the emerging power and the remaining promise of the Chinese internet - as well as the rewards to be won by those who master its commercial challenges.

The founder of Nasdaq-listed Shanda Interactive Entertainment topped the 2004 Euromoney rich-list for Chinese IT industry players with assets worth an estimated $1.05bn.

Mr Chen’s success has been founded on pioneering massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) in China, initially by licensing them from South Korean developers, and then by producing its own.

MMORPGs, which allow large numbers of players to simultaneously play characters in a unified online fantasy world, have proved hugely popular among young Chinese. More importantly, since they are subscription-based, they are relatively unaffected by the rampant piracy that make it all but impossible to generate a profit in China from stand-alone computer games.

But Mr Chen’s plans reach beyond games, as demonstrated by Shanda’s recent purchase of a major stake in Sina, China’s biggest internet portal, a move seen as a prelude for a possible takeover.

Indeed, Mr Chen talks about his company as a kind of Chinese Disney, that will use games instead of cartoons as a stepping stone to the creation of an empire that spans multiple forms of content.

www.shanda.com.cn

By Mure Dickie

Niklas Zennistrom
NIKLAS ZENNSTROM

It should surprise nobody to find Swedish entrepreneur Niklas Zennstrom at the cutting edge of a disruptive technology threatening to change the telecommunications world forever.

Mr Zennstrom, 38, is chief executive of Skype, the Luxembourg-based group which emerged on the telecommunications scene in 2003 and has, since then, revolutionised how we make calls and, more importantly, how much we spend on them.

With the introduction of Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP services, Skype allows anyone with a broadband connection to make voice calls over the Internet free of charge.

Mr Zennstrom and co-founder Janus Friis, a 28-year-old Dane, have turned their attention to telecoms after making waves back in 2000 with the introduction of music download website, KaZaA, which was built on their FastTrack file-sharing technology, and became the most downloaded software following Napster’s shutdown by US courts in 2001.

Mr Zennstrom and Mr Friis eventually sold KaZaA and drawing on a shared telecoms background they set up Skype, which has accumulated 30m users worldwide in its relatively short existence. A third of those are business people, and Skype says it is now adding 155,000 users a day. This is all the more astounding because Skype has expended very little energy or cash on marketing.

Skype allows people to download its software free of charge which then enables them to call other devotees free of charge. There’s also a prepaid alternative, called SkypeOut, which allows users to call non-members on normal telephone lines at local rates.

The VoIP trend in general, and Skype in particular, has frightened traditional telephone companies into launching their own VoIP services as they try to stave off falling revenues in a fixed-line telephone business that is already threatened by mobile phone and instant messaging services.

www.skype.com

By Rupini Bergstrom

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