Joost, the much hyped online TV service from the founders of Skype, has begun opening its doors to the public. Though you can’t sign up through the company’s website, current Beta testers now have an unlimited number of invites to send to friends, so that it shouldn’t take long before anybody who wants to try out the service, can.
What is Joost?
Claiming to combine the best of TV with the best of the net, Joost is an on-demand video service that utilizes P2P technology to deliver a TV-like experience on a PC. In this respect, think of it as cable television without the need for a set-top-box. Additional functionality is provided through a number of built-in applications (called ‘widgets’) which include a channel-based chat room, an IM client (currently GTalk and Jabber only), and an RSS-based news ticker.
Let’s cut to the chase: picture quality is watch-able but could be better. I’d describe it as near-broadcast quality, coming close to some of the lower bit-rate channels found on digital television. When viewing Joost on a computer monitor the temptation is to sit fairly close, resulting in any compression artifacts being that bit more noticeable, especially in full screen mode.
However, when I tested Joost on my living room TV (a 23 inch LCD connected to a Mac mini) sitting much further away, picture quality was less of an issue. Having said that, Joost’s interface isn’t really well designed to be operated from such a distance (see below).
To keep with the TV-like experience, Joost by default runs in fullscreen mode and the main controls remain hidden until you mouse-over them. On the right hand side is the ‘My Channels’ button which takes you to the channel guide, and on the left is ‘My Joost’ where you can access widgets, and change any preferences (including setting a pin for adult-only access). The video controls appear at the bottom of the screen and are similar to those found on a DVD player (play, pause, skip etc), with the additional of a ‘stand by’ button which when clicked shrinks the picture down to a tiny dot before minimizing the application.
Although the interface is slick, a few things slightly bother me. Firstly, a number of the controls are of the ‘mystery meat’ variety, meaning that you can’t be sure of what they do until you mouse-over them. Obviously, prolonged use will bring with it familiarity, but until then, I experienced a fair bit of aimless mouse action. Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, the interface doesn’t scale too well as you move further away from the screen. While I was delighted to find that Joost is compatible with the Apple remote, from my normal viewing position it’s nearly impossible to read some of the on-screen text (including the channel guide), and there doesn’t appear to be an option to increase font size.
With the initial release of Joost’s Beta, the available content was sparse to say the least. But ramping up to its public release there doesn’t seemed to have been a month gone by without the company announcing yet another new content partner; big names signed up include: MTV, Comedy Central, CNN, Sony Pictures television, CBS, and National Geographic. Additionally, there’s a fair bit of indie content; a personal favorite is ‘IndieFlix’, which shows full length independent films. Looking through the growing list of channels it’s clear that Joost will soon have something for everyone — as long as you live in the US, that is. Joost is built using 21st century technology, but still exists in a world of 20th century licensing, resulting in lots of content not being available to viewers outside of North America.
Regional licensing aside, it’s still impressive that Joost has been able to get so many of the big studios to sign up, along with big brand advertisers. To pull these deals off, Joost has successfully positioned itself as the copyright friendly Internet TV service, where content is locked down so that it can’t easily be pirated. This is in contrast to video sharing sites like YouTube.
As already mentioned, Joost utilizes widgets to provide additional functionality, the most noticeable of which is a channel-based chat room. The idea is to allow viewers to talk to each other in real-time while watching the same channel. In testing there was rarely anybody watching the same channel as me, so it was hard to get a feel for how – as more users join – this will add to the Joost experience. As with the chatroom, any of the widgets (clock, news ticker, IM client etc) has the option of being ‘pinned’ to the screen so that is constantly available, even when watching full screen video.
Joost is an impressive entry into the world of Internet TV. Its peer-to-peer technology not only lowers the cost of distribution for content owners, but also does it in a way that appears to solve the piracy problem. That said, picture quality could be better, and the license restrictions on content seriously impedes users (like me) who reside outside of the US. Overall, Joost is a welcome addition to the digital home, but I wouldn’t cancel your cable subscription just yet.