Thursday, February 01, 2007

First impressions of Joost

So I managed to get Joost up and running on my PC (turns out I'd left Hardware Acceleration switched off after taking some screengrabs in Windows Media Player) and I'm inferring from the availability of screengrabs on the site "that anyone can use to illustrate stories or blog posts about Joost" that its now cool to write about it (I'm sure their lawyers will let me know if not).

For the uninitiated, Joost (formerly known as The Venice Project) is a peer-to-peer TV distribution technology from Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis (founders of Skype and Kazaa), currently in closed beta. Interestingly the keyword here is not peer-to-peer, or for that matter distribution, but TV, for Joost's real innovation is not one of technical delivery but of interface design (or, more specifically, interface hybridisation).

Prior to Joost, almost all online distributors of TV content adopted a very web (or in some cases, desktop) focused approach to presentation (i.e. the applications looked and behaved like web/desktop applications). What Zennström and Friis have done is salvage the baby from the bathwater in appropriating some of the best things about broadcast TV and then adding on layers of web-enabled goodness.

For example, the first thing that strikes you when you fire up the app is that it immediately starts playing full screen video. There are no option screens to plough through, no wizard to explain how everything works. You just switch it on and it starts playing. Like a TV.

You move the mouse to the top of the screen in search of a menu bar. Guess what? No menu bar. Just four graphical elements along each of the screen's 'hot edges' (see below grab). Along the bottom is 'The Controller', a navigational panel comprising familiar transport controls (Pause, Restart current programme, Skip to next programme), a volume control and a channel changer. Ok, you think, it's like a TV/DVD remote. I get it. Although hang on a minute, isn't that a Search box? On my TV remote? You panic and press the Standby button. The image shrinks to a white dot in the centre of the screen...

The extent to which Joost borrows the behavioural and iconographic characteristics of TV is initially disconcerting, then strangely reassuring as you realise that they've mostly taken the good bits. 'My Channels', which is located on the left-hand hot edge, is essentially an EPG (Electronic Programme Guide), showcasing the available channels (28 at time of writing) with a few navigational/promotional aids (e.g. Staff picks, Most interactive, New channels).

However, Joost also capitalises on the inherent strengths of the Internet and layers web-enabled elements over the top of the broadcast TV environment. The right-hand hot edge features 'My Joost' which offers a selection of semi-transparent widget overlays (they call them plugins) which float over the top of the TV image. At the time of writing there are only half a dozen plugins to choose from, although that will no doubt increase as the beta progresses. These range from the really rather ordinary (Clock, Notice Board, News Ticker) to the potentially quite disruptive (Instant Messaging, Rate It, Channel Chat). It's surely only a matter of time before a Skype widget arrives, enabling your friends to talk over your favourite programme remotely.

The potential of the 'Interactive programme information' hot spot, at the top of the screen, hasn't yet been fully realised with just two programmes (the unlikely pairing of 'Lassie' and 'The World's Strongest Man') offering any degree of interactivity, although its only fairly basic browsable text and video content which might just about pass muster as an interactive TV app but seems inadequate when you're sat in front of a net-connected PC.

So, what of the actual viewing experience? The video and audio quality are really pretty impressive with a refreshing absence of discernible artifacts. How long you'll spend watching is more dependent on the quality of the content, which is the application's real $64,000 question. At this early stage Joost still essentially feels like a technological proof-of-concept, albeit a very compelling one. Whether it succeeds in changing the way the world consumes TV, as it's founders clearly hope, now depends on the quality of the content. Saying no to user-generated programming is an obvious differentiator from YouTube et al. but also a clear marker in terms of where Joost hopes to position itself on the quality spectrum.

Whether or not Zennström and Friis are able to secure the content and advertising deals they'll need to make this thing fly (the smart money says yes), it remains a fascinating example of hybridisation, combining some of the best elements of broadcast TV (an intuitive interface, high production values, a scalable distribution model) with some of the most compelling uses of the net (on-demand delivery, social networking, long tail economics).

I can't help feeling that there's a lesson here for other market sectors attempting to translate established industries into successful online propositions; namely, don't try and reinvent the wheel when you can create something far superior by adopting a magpie approach, plundering the existing model for the elements which work, disregarding those that don't and cherry-picking from the smorgasbord of new net-based technologies.

Having spearheaded revolutions in both music distribution and telephony, the dynamic P2P duo look all set to repeat the feat with TV. The question is 'what next?' I'm thinking distributed gaming, although Joost is likely to keep them busy for a good while yet.


Fraser said...

I'm looking for a Joost invite token... do you happen to have some extras you can toss my way? :)

Anonymous said...

I have more invites at if anyone still needs a joost invite.