Whatever Happened To P2P Set-Top Boxes?

myka2008 was supposed to be the year when Internet video finally reached the living room, thanks to a whole bunch of set-top boxes. Part of that mix was supposed to be P2P, either in the form of distributed streaming, or good old BitTorrent downloads. Well, guess what: It hasn’t really happened — at least not on a large scale. Most of us still watch YouTube and Hulu on our laptops, and file-sharing continues to be almost exclusively PC-based.

So whatever happened to all those P2P set-top boxes that were supposed to revolutionize not only how we watch video, but also how those bits reach our living room? With the year coming to a close, we decided to check back, report about progress (and failures) and give an outlook for the fate of these boxes in 2009.

Here are five P2P set top boxes that made headlines in 2008:

was the big P2P-device story of the spring. It promised licensed content from major studios as well as BitTorrent in a nice box that looked a little like an over-sized Apple TV, and it got enthusiastic coverage from Wired.com, Gizmodo, Engadget and others. It’s web site however hasn’t been updated since spring and is still taking pre-orders for a supposed release in the summer of ’08. Its forum has been taken over by spammers, and one former affiliate partner complained to us that he hasn’t seen any money nor heard from the company since April. We tried to get in touch with Myka, but didn’t receive any reply — enough reasons to call this vaporware.

Vudu is definitely not vaporware, but the company has faced its own set of obstacles this year. Vudu offers its customers progressive, P2P-powered downloads of 1,100 HD movies for $4 a pop. It’s been struggling to get a bigger audience for its box despite price cuts, and it went through a round of layoffs and the departure of its CEO. On the plus side, it did just introduce a new high-end device. TheVudu XL 2 features “aerospace-grade aluminum bezel,” is available only through home-theater installers and comes with a hefty price tag of $1,299. That seems to be just the right business model for a recession…

China-based Vatata promises to bring its own streaming P2P video platform Vakaka as well as popular file-sharing protocols like BitTorrent to the living room. The company doesn’t actually produce it’s own set top boxes, but it licenses its platform to hardware makers. We covered the company earlier this year when it had just struck three such licensing agreements.Vatata’s CEO Jian Song told us that these devices have now reached the shelves of retailers in China, but customers have only bought around 10,000 of them so far. The company is looking for a partner in the U.S. right now and is actively working on the next generation of its platform, which will also feature Hulu playback, according to Song. This one could get interesting — if it ever actually makes its way to U.S. retailers.

also doesn’t have its own box, but instead runs amongst other things on Apple TVs, offering Apple users not only the chance to download torrents straight to their living room thanks to a built-in BitTorrent client, but also to use other people’s guilty torrent pleasures as a recommendation engine for Hulu streams and other legitimate content sources. That’s pretty clever, but the whole setup has one downside: Apple tightly controls its own platform, as evident by the latest Apple TV update that broke Boxee. Granted, the Boxee community came up with a fix in no time, but Boxee will remain a niche product if it depends on its users capability to jailbreak their set-top box after every new update.

NextshareTV is a set-top box developed by Pioneer and P2P Next, a European research project backed by a couple million Euros of EU funding that aims to figure out better P2P streaming solutions. Pioneer has apparently produced a working prototype of this box for an extensive field test of the technology. Don’t expect these boxes to reach the shelves in 2009 though: The P2P Next project is scheduled to run for four years, and it’s unlikely that content partners like the BBC will allow anything to reach the marketplace before issues like rights management and territorial restrictions are solved.