So why does Microsoft even care how many people download the Windows 7 beta? One concern may be the cost to the company. If 4 million people download the 2.5-GB ISO file during the next two weeks, it would require about 10 petabytes of bandwidth. Microsoft has a lot of network infrastructure, but Friday's disaster shows that it wasn't enough. Adding more capacity means adding more cost.
There is, of course, a solution that would cause less stress to both Microsoft and the Internet in general: BitTorrent. With a peer-to-peer protocol such as BitTorrent, other downloaders that are close by can send you the parts of the file they already have. That's faster than delivering the file exclusively from a small number of expensive servers, or paying to use a content delivery network like Akamai. Unlike Microsoft's current infrastructure, a BitTorrent network performs better with heavy loads because peers can service each other.
Because BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer networks have primarily been used to distribute software, music, and video without the permission of their creators, many companies -- it seems this includes Microsoft -- treat them as pariahs. Yet there's nothing illegal or immoral about the BitTorrent protocol itself. There are already plenty of unofficial torrents of the Windows 7 beta available, and some impatient users have decided to download them because Microsoft's own response was so dismal these past few days. However, those users are taking serious risks. Since the files are not directly from Microsoft, there's always a chance that a virus or other malicious software has been added to the package.
The Windows 7 beta process isn't just a straightforward download; Microsoft requires you to log in to a Passport account and get a license key in order to get to a download link. Then you must use Microsoft's download manager ActiveX control to download the file. I had to use IE for the download; Firefox wouldn't do anything when I clicked the download button. It's good that Microsoft is using a download manager for a 2.5-GB file, but the app itself is pretty sparse. You can't set bandwidth-usage limits, for example. A BitTorrent client like uTorrent would be much better.
Even if Microsoft took advantage of a peer-to-peer network, it could still require users to get the license keys if that's part of the control it insists upon. I would point out, however, that several of the torrents available on sites such as The Pirate Bay claim that they have been "pre-activated" and don't require a separate license key, or they include several license keys already. At this point, Microsoft should be happy that so many people were anxious to see its next operating system and use all the tools it can find to get it into users' hands.