"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Friday, May 11, 2007

Joost Crazy

For the last month or so, I've been a beta-tester for the new interactive video-on-demand service called Joost (pronounced "Juiced"). You've probably heard of it; Joost is being hyped by many as the Internet's next "killer app", and is the brainchild of Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, those two wacky Scandinavians who brought you Kazaa and Skype. Joost positions itself as "Internet Cable TV", but to me it's more like a large collection of videos grouped by common subject matter into "channels". In this way, it resembles YouTube more than your local cable service, except the videos are all high quality and professionally produced; there's none of the "user-generated content" found on YouTube and other similar sites.

Programs on Joost range in length from one or two-minute shorts up to full-length features of 90 minutes or more. You can pick and choose from an inventory of about 150 channels, including offerings from CNN, The Comedy Channel, MTV and many others. (See the full channel overview here.) Note that these are NOT exactly the same as their cable TV counterparts. If you select MTV, for example, you can choose only from a limited selection of programs, mostly episodes of "Laguna Beach", "Punk'd", and "My Sweet 16". Other channels feature game shows, music videos, comedies, sports, and a few (but not many) movies.

All the video is streamed directly over the web to your machine, in real time, on demand. You pick the program you want to watch and start viewing it, no worries about it being "in progress". When the show's over, if you do nothing Joost will play the next program in the list, like a cable TV station. However, you can stop it at any time and come back later, or pick another program on another channel. For the geek minded, Joost is technically known as a "hybrid peer-to-peer application", which uses the same technology its founders developed for Kazaa. A diagram and explanation of how it works can be found here.

Here's a few screen shots of the basic interface (click each pic for a larger version):


The quality of the video is pretty decent, which came as somewhat of a surprise to me after being used to the small-sized, grainy content found on most other sites. Joost can stream either in a window or full-screen, and looks quite good in either.

Up until recently, Joost was available only to a very small and select number of beta testers. I had submitted my request to join way back in October, and just got my "invitation" to sign up last month. The first few weeks after I began watching were pretty rocky; evidently a lot of people got their invites at the same time I did, and the service had trouble handling the sudden increase in load. Videos would stutter or not play at all, and for a while I was jokingly referring to Joost as "The Error Message Channel" because most often what I saw was this:


I was not the only one, either, as the developers noted on their blog:
As you might have discovered already, we're having some problems with the central servers in Luxembourg... We've been flooded with demand, which is fabulous and ultimately will make the system stronger, but since it's unaccustomed to this level of usage it's stumbling a bit, whereas we'd like it to be sprinting.
However, a new version of the program was released this week, and most of these problems seem to have been fixed. It still burps occasionally, but I've been able to watch for several hours at a time without any major interruptions. Some of the shows have been quite interesting. For example, I like documentaries, and found a fascinating film on the National Geographic Channel called "Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories". An ordinary guy by the name of Mike Shiley just decided one day, pretty much out of the blue, to pick up a camera, go to Iraq, and shoot a movie about normal, everyday life there; it's a point of view you definitely won't get from the US military's PR machine. Another favorite has been "The Saturday Morning Channel", which features several old cartoon series that I loved as a kid, including Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Joost claims they're adding new content all the time, and have made deals with some big-name distributors to feature their programming. Record companies are beginning to take notice of Joost as a way to promote their artists, so there are quite a few music videos on the site. You've probably never heard of most of them, but that's the whole point.

The best part is that it's all free to watch. Joost makes money by inserting occasional commercials into the program stream, just like a regular TV station does, but the good news is that they limit the ads to two or three minutes per hour as opposed to the ten to twelve minutes per hour that you're subjected to on broadcast TV.

At the moment, Joost is still in the beta stage and requires an invitation to sign up and start watching. However, as a current beta tester, I can "invite" as many people as I want -- so any readers of this blog who would like to try it out, just drop me a note to mrtoast AT suddenlink DOT net, and I'll be more than happy to send you one. A couple of caveats to keep in mind:

1) You MUST have a high-speed, broadband internet connection. Dialup will not work, and the fatter your pipe is the better. 1 mBs downstream is the bare minimum, 2 mBs is recommended, and 3 or 4 will rock. (If you'd like to test your connection speed, click here.)

Note that Joost has the following to say on their web site about bandwidth:

"Joost is a streaming video application, and so uses a relatively high amount of bandwidth per hour. In one hour of viewing, approximately 320Mb data will be downloaded and 105Mb uploaded, which means that it will exhaust a 1Gb cap in 10 hours. Windows users should note that the application continues to run in the background after you close the main window. For this reason, if you pay for your bandwidth usage per megabyte or have your usage capped by your ISP, you should be careful to always exit Joost client completely when you are finished watching it."

Since my cable-modem service provider charges a flat monthly fee and does not cap my bandwidth, this is not a problem for me, but may be an important factor if yours does. Call them and ask if you're not sure.

2) Joost requires a fairly snappy machine. The newer your PC and the more memory you have, the better it will work. The following system specs are recommended:
  • Windows XP Service Pack 2 with DirectX 9.0c
  • Pentium 4 processor (or equivalent), 1GHz
  • 512Mb or more RAM
  • A modern video card with DirectX support and at least 32Mb of RAM
  • About 500 MB free disk space
3) Like any other form of TV, Joost will be a HUGE time sink. You will find hours of your life disappearing in front of the screen, so be sure you have lots of spare time on your hands.

4) Finally, remember that Joost is still in BETA. It is not guaranteed to work. It might conflict with other stuff on your computer (although I haven't had any real problems). No technical support is provided. It might scare your dog. It may cause cramps, nausea, headache, irritability, sleeplessness or warts after prolonged use. Not responsible for direct, indirect, incidental or consequential damages. For educational and recreational use only. Not recommended for children. Close cover before striking. May be slippery when wet. Use only in a well-ventilated area. No purchase necessary, void where prohibited, your mileage may vary, etc.

Seriously, I don't mean to scare anyone off -- as I say, my experience has been pretty good, with no conflicts or serious problems. As with any new software that hasn't been fully tested yet and may still be a bit buggy, I would advise at the very least setting a system restore point before installing Joost. A backup wouldn't hurt either, but like any smart computer user, you're doing that on a regular basis anyway, right? Of course you are.

Will Joost ever replace "real" TV? Probably not, especially once HDTV really gets off the ground in 2009 when analog goes dark. The founders point out that Skype hasn't put the phone companies out of business either, and is merely an alternate method of providing a service. But Joost is still a very big step in a direction that many broadcasters have been thinking about for a long, long time, and it will only get better as both the quality of the content Joost can deliver and the technology behind it continues to improve. Even with its current limitations, I'm still quite impressed. Again, if you'd like an invitation to check it out for yourself, "joost" let me know.

1 Comments:

  • At 5/12/2007 12:47:00 PM, Anonymous ugly dog said…

    I like the amount of content providers jumping on Joost from the get-go. Hopefully building the service from the ground up ensures success.

    Good blog.

     

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