There have been a number of attempts to stream television shows and other types of video programming over the internet. All of these efforts have run into problems of one form or another – some technical, some legal, some monetary, and some a combination of all of the above. All of these attempts had one thing in common, however: they offered poor-quality internet TV service containing little or no compelling programming.
The latest attempt to deliver quality TV over the internet is called Joost. It’s still in beta but it’s far enough along to demonstrate that its creators have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. Joost may even offer a glimpse at the future of television.
Let’s take a look at what Joost is and what makes it different.
So what exactly is Joost? Joost (pronounced “juiced“) is an application which runs on your computer (PC or Mac) and lets you watch television shows (or other types of video) streamed over the internet. Joost is what’s known as “IPTV”, an acronym for the catchy phrase “Internet Protocol TeleVision”. You can think of Joost as a type of cable company except that, unlike a traditional cable company, the programming is all “on-demand” and comes to you over your broadband internet connection. Pick your channel and your show, hit the play button, and the show starts. Because all of Joost’s programming is on-demand you can watch any of its programming at any time — there’s no set schedule and no need to record anything so that you can watch it later.
Now that we know what Joost is let’s look at how it’s different from previous IPTV attempts.
One of the major things Joost has done differently has to do with the way in which content is actually delivered to the user. The failed IPTV services all used a model which featured a set of servers delivering content directly to users. That’s how a site like YouTube works, with all of its video stored on its own servers and streamed to each user individually.
Joost is a more like a P2P (“peer-to-peer”) file sharing system than a central storage system. That’s not entirely surprising since the founders of YouTube are also the founders of Skype (the VOIP phone network) and Kazaa (the P2P file sharing network). In a nutshell, a P2P system leverages the network connections of the users which are connected to the service to help deliver the programming. If you’re watching the same content as other people on the network you’ll be getting some of your content from each of those other users and they’ll be getting some of their content from you.
Utilizing a P2P approach has a number of major benefits, the biggest of which is that it reduces the amount of bandwidth that the Joost servers have to handle. At any given time only a part, if any, of the content that a user is watching is coming directly from the Joost servers (the remaining part of the content coming from other Joost users). Because of this reduced network load Joost can offer higher-quality video since the network load is spread over a larger number of players. Unlike services which aren’t P2P-based, Joost’s performance should actually improve as more and more users are added.
Another area where Joost outclasses its predecessors is in the area of its user interface. The Joost user interface is a bit of a cross between a modern “Web 2.0″ interface and a TiVo. Under the covers the interface is built using XULRunner, the same technology that the Firefox browser uses. The developers clearly didn’t want the application to look like a web browser, or, for that matter, even like a computer application. In fact Joost looks more like it could be a stand-alone appliance rather than a program running on your computer and could easily be controlled using a remote control rather than a mouse and keyboard. Transitions between on-screen menus involve some nice, smooth animations overlayed on top of the video giving Joost a sophisticated user experience.
Yet another major thing that Joost has going for it is in the area of content. Previous attempts at IPTV have either provided copyrighted content illegally (like the episodes of The Daily Show which recently had to be removed from YouTube) or have provided legal content which nobody was interested it watching. Joost, meanwhile, has managed to sign up some major content providers, such as CBS and Viacom (the parent company of MTV, Paramount, and Comedy Central). As Joost ramps up its service more and more content from these providers is becoming available to Joost users.
When you add all of that up Joost is able to provide some pretty compelling decent-quality video through a simple-to-use interface. At this point the video quality of Joost isn’t quite TV-grade (let alone HDTV grade) but it’s much better than the video that you get from other services (YouTube, for example). Because of the P2P delivery system that Joost uses they could potentially ramp up that video quality as the number of Joost users increases.
The content that’s currently available through Joost isn’t fantastic but it’s much better than the content that was offered by Joost’s IPTV predecessors. By the time Joost nears the end of its beta cycle the deals that Joost has struck with the major content providers should allow it to flush out its catalog. CBS has already promised some of its big-name shows (CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, CBS Evening News, CBS Sportsline, and Survivor) and, hopefully, Viacom will offer some of the content which it forced YouTube to remove (“The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report”, for instance).
So what does the future hold for Joost? Assuming that it continues to expand its relationship with media providers Joost could very well be positioned to succeed where the other IPTV ventures have failed. It has the content, the delivery mechanism, and the user interface that a successful IPTV offering needs. Since it’s build using the XULRunner framework it could potentially run on many types of devices, not just on your desktop computer. The company has stated that it plans to open up its API — that should allow Joost to be ported to all different types of devices. Imagine using your Playstation 3, your XBox 360, or even your Wii to run Joost so that you could watch its programming on the TV in your living room instead of on your computer monitor. Who knows — one day you may even be able to buy a Joost set-top box and ditch your cable company.
Joost is currently free (they plan on making money through commercials and other types of advertising) but you have to be invited to participate in the beta. If you don’t know anyone in the beta program you can always sign up for an invitation at the Joost website.
Joost is going to be an interesting experiment to watch. And I mean that literally.