Meet the hackers who smuggled the Netflix of piracy aboard your iPad

studios sue 16 owners who torrented film survivor popcorn time
Denys Prykhodov/Shutterstock
The most controversial app available for your iPhone and iPad isn’t in the App Store.

Popcorn Time let’s users stream pirated TV shows and movies as easily as they would stream Netflix, and has made waves with millions of defiant users, thanks to the virtual middle finger it flips at movie and TV producers. A new free Popcorn Time app for non-jailbroken iOS devices went live on April 8. We’ve used it, and we’ve talked to the folks that made it.

“We always felt Apple’s totalitarian approach to their ecosystem was wrong.”

The legal argument for Popcorn Time’s video-streaming app is essentially nonexistent. It’s a pirating service designed to make downloading illegal torrents of popular movies and TV shows as easy as watching Netflix. Yet, unlike Netflix and other streaming providers who pay for the rights to the content they offer, Popcorn Time doesn’t pay a dime for all the movies and TV shows on its app.

Believe it or not, the people behind the new app are even more defiant than the Argentine developers that created the original Popcorn Time website, which was forced to shut down in March 2014. At the time, that groups claimed that the service was “legal” after checking the laws “four times.” Maybe they should have checked the law a fifth time.

Because Popcorn Time was open-source, it found new life in the current versions or “forks” available for computers and mobile devices.

Its creators want to openly challenge Hollywood studios, Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and other streaming platforms to democratize content further, given that “people will risk fines, lawsuits, and whatever consequences that may come just to be able to watch a recent movie in slippers.” But while it opens up a vast breadth of pirated content, the real mission of the Popcorn Time app may be circumventing Apple’s control over what apps can and cannot be installed on an iPhone or iPad through its App Store.

Breaching Apple’s walls

Popcorn’s iOS app hails from a group calling itself “iOS Installer,” which collaborated with Popcorn Time members. It’s essentially a testing ground to bypass Apple’s rigid protocols for app availability and installation on non-jailbroken iOS devices.

“We always felt Apple’s totalitarian approach to their ecosystem was wrong — how they choose for their users what they can and cannot install on the devices they purchased and paid top dollar for,” an iOS Installer developer told Digital Trends, preferring to remain anonymous. “This project with Popcorn Time would be our pilot and, if successful, then the sky is the limit.”

In other words, this grassroots movement to sideload apps onto non-jailbroken iOS devices could open the floodgates to an underground marketplace for app developers and consumers. It will inevitably become a cat-and-mouse game with Apple, which has always frowned on anyone not playing by its strict app rules. iOS Installer’s motivation seems to be a cross between Robin Hood and V for Vendetta, by the way the group talks about tackling what it perceives as an “unjust” system of governance by Apple.

“We’ve seen awesome startups close and people losing their jobs, solely because the app they created didn’t align with whatever ‘master plan’ Apple’s had, and so their app was denied access to the App Store,” the developer said. “We always felt how unjust it was, and when Popcorn Time approached us, we felt that this was the wake up call we were waiting for.”

“Last time we checked, pirates didn’t need Popcorn Time in order to share content online, but they do need torrent websites to do so.”

It’s not clear what Apple may do to knock this slow-moving train off track, given the war of attrition the company has had with the jailbreaking community for years.

“We have no doubt that this will be a long journey playing ‘cat and mouse’ with Apple, who probably won’t like us breaking their closed ecosystem,” he said. “But we are ready for any obstacle they throw our way with pretty creative solutions we will reveal soon.”

And yet, in spite of iOS Installer’s bold claims that the Popcorn Time iOS workaround is just the first step in a larger agenda, the Popcorn Time source we interviewed, who also requested to remain anonymous, suggested that the app’s existence isn’t about sending a message of any sort — It only affirms a belief that the service “needs to exist.”

“Let us make it clear: We’re not a torrent website. We don’t create content, we don’t own content, we don’t even host it. And torrent websites have been here with millions of users way before Popcorn Time and will be here with billions of users way after,” he told us.

Streaming a movie or show on Popcorn Time means that you’re downloading and seeding it simultaneously, which technically puts you in the illegal position of distributing copyrighted content for free, even though you don’t actually have the content stored on your own device.

The openness of the platform may make it difficult for producers and providers to stop it, too. Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, identified Popcorn Time as “one of our biggest competitors,” so it has caught the attention of more than just Hollywood executives. Currently, the service works from centralized servers that aren’t under developers’ control, effectively meaning that it could be shut down again without warning. The plan is to decentralize and move the whole infrastructure to a peer-to-peer (P2P) network, so as to “put the power in the hands of our users.”

“The only ones who will be able to take us down will be our users if they leave Popcorn Time and won’t want to share the information anymore. Not anyone else who has something personal against us and what we do,” said a Popcorn Time developer.

What it’s like to use Popcorn Time on an iPad

We decided to test out Popcorn Time to see for ourselves just how this unofficial app works. The app comes from a popular Popcorn Time fork, which can currently only be installed through a short process on a Windows PC (a Mac version will be available soon). The downloaded Popcorn installer is an executable that loads onto the iPhone or iPad in a five-step process, toggling to Airplane Mode along the way to sidestep standard verification. We never had to access the App Store or type in an Apple ID to download or use the app.

iTunes needs to be installed on the computer in order to recognize the device that’s plugged in, but it serves no real purpose in the setup process beyond that. Once the installation was finished, we followed the instructions and launched the app while in Airplane Mode, and then toggled it off with the app open. The familiar grid-like interface then appeared with the latest movies.

Popcorn Time on the desktop has received acclaim for its presentation, taking the Netflix approach and making it easy for anyone to browse, search, and select what they want. This app, however, doesn’t look as polished or vibrant, with remnants of iOS 6’s design language and graphical elements that look rough or grainy. Even if Apple were cool with piracy, there is no way the app would make the cut based on its appearance alone.

Unlike Netflix, there is no instant playback on Popcorn Time. It’s only after the file has sufficiently loaded that the content can start playing. There’s no recommendation engine or any of the personalization trappings that Netflix and other video streaming services try to offer and improve upon. As is, the app comes across more as a proof of concept — yet one that actually works, even if it doesn’t look very pretty.

It’s functionality is still inconsistent, as well. AirPlay is available for some content, but the option disappears for other videos. The app recognizes a Chromecast every time, but some strange things can happen when you cast a video. Once one film was done, we had trouble casting another one right after. We had to close and restart the app to get around this hiccup on a number of occasions. In other cases, the stream would stall or not work at all for reasons unknown.

A member of the Popcorn Time team told Digital Trends that the app is still a work in progress, with an improved user interface coming in May. He added that “many different platforms and verticals” are also coming, including Windows Phone, which is scheduled for May. There is already a beta version of Popcorn Time for Android.

Our experience with Popcorn Time was very intriguing. It’s strange to be able to pirate content so easily. And the app’s workaround of Apple’s App Store also begs the question: If Popcorn Time can do this, can any app developer use the same technique to circumvent Apple’s app review process? The answer to that question, and many others, remains to be seen.

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