Is Wuala a BitTorrent 2.0?

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We're all just movie projectors?

Normally I like to stick to UK and Irish firms on this site but I’m going to make an exception with Wuala, because it looks pretty interesting.

Wua.la” is a startup coming out of Switzerland, which I met at the recent Future of Web Apps conference in London. Co-founder Dominik Grolimund – who is as of today, driving around in Silicon Valley pitching the idea – told me that Wuala is basically a peer-to-peer file storage and sharing system. Think BitTorrent for storage – but the difference is that Wuala has added ‘persistance’.

Wuala – currently in a closed alpha phase – stores a user’s files in multiple pieces, encrypted on multiple hard drives, anywhere on the Internet. If that sounds like a legal and security nightmare, then it probably is. What we are talking about here is someone storing, on your hard drive, absolutely anything and in an un-crackable form. In return you get the same service. They can’t see your files, you can’t see theirs. Not even Wuala can see them, since encryption and decryption is performed locally and a member’s password is never sent to Wuala.

The software does this via a free desktop application for Windows and Mac which – suggest the early screen shots I’ve seen – make the service look just like a folder on your hard drive. You can drag and drop files, upload files in the background, open files in your favourite application, and stream media files directly. Being a P2P service like BitTorrent, Wuala is decentralised and can harness idle resources of participating computers to build a large online storage network.

What does Wuala get out of it? They get a small advert in a window on the file-storage software you use to encrypt and store you files. Plus, maybe, the opportunity to offer some kind of premium service down the line. In my opinion this doesn’t sound like a very viable advertising business, especially as they are not even allowed to see the files on the system so can’t target advertising.

Alarm bells ring further when I read on Wuala’s own site that “you can use it to share files such as photos, videos, music, or documents with friends or groups.” Of course the infinite, free and highly secure nature of the service suggests it could well become a haven for some fairly unsavoury material. Grolimund says not even the NSA could crack the encryption, and since Wuala is in Switzerland in theory it is a very ‘safe haven’.

In the public sharing space on Wuala you’ll be able to publish files for other Wuala users to see, search and browse, store any file you want in any size you want, and download with no traffic limits. Members start with 1GB of storage and increase this amount by trading some space on their hard disk for additional storage. Since the network is P2P you can access it from anywhere at any time, even when your computer is offline, though it helps, says Grolimund, if your PC is online for about 4 hours a day – an easy enough issue for many.

The background to Wuala is interesting in that it came out of an academic project at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

Grolimund himself is a 26 year old former computer science graduate who co-founded Caleido AG – Wuala’s owner – with Luzius Meisser. Caleido is best known for developing the Caleido Address-Book, a professional contact management software, of which over 35,000 licenses have been sold so far in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. It’s cash from this firm which is funding Wuala currently.

The upshot with Wuala is that as nice as it sounds having infinite storage at your fingertips, the mere thought that some pretty nasty people may use my hard drive to store their files – even if I can’t see what they are storing – rather puts me off. Furthermore, storage is really not that expensive these days. Wuala feels more like a system to store things you don’t want anyone else to see. Granted you can share pictures or video of your wedding with friends on Wula, but surely innocuous material like this can be fairly easily emailed or uploaded to a closed YouTube friends family group.

Perhaps I’ve got it wrong, but a massively encrypted, unlimited, distributed P2P network feels like overkill for the average user, but a God-send to the darknet,. It’s also another headache for the Recording Industry Association of America, and their brethren around the world. However even if Wuala doesn’t succeed, I’m sure the concept will be re-invented by others.

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