Interview: Zattoo co-founders

Zattoo live TV on the InternetZattoo (see our review) is one of only a few Internet TV applications that I use on an almost daily basis. It enables me to watch live television — which includes all of the BBC’s offerings along with a few other European channels — in a window in the corner of my laptop, while I remain productive: blogging, replying to or writing email and chatting over IM. In this way, Zattoo is pitched very differently to competitors such as Joost or Babelgum, both of which attempt to re-create part of the “lean-back” experience of traditional TV.

I caught up with two of Zattoo’s co-founders (via email), Sugih Jamin and Beat Knecht, to find out more about the company’s mission and its Silicon Valley-esque roots in academia.

Sugih Jamin is the Chairman, CTO, and Co-founder of Zattoo, Inc. Beat Knecht is the President, CEO, and Co-founder of Zattoo, Inc.

Please tell us a bit about your background and position in the company.

Sugih: Beat and I met in college about 20 years ago.  I went on to get my graduate degree and then became a professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Prior to Zattoo, Beat worked at UBS, then got his MBA, and joined McKinsey and then Levanta.

Tell us about the roots of Zattoo. Am I correct that it grew out of an academic research project?

Sugih: That’s right.  It started out as a PhD thesis of Wenjie Wang, whom I was supervising at the time.  It was first used to broadcast several technical conferences live on the Internet.  From that success, we decided to commercialize the technology.  I recruited my long-time friend, Beat Knecht, to help us build the company. The three of us founded the company in the US, in Ann Arbor, in 2005. It was initially funded with our own money and funds from friends and families— as most startups are, I suppose.

How does Zattoo compare with other P2P streaming consumer applications such as Joost?

Sugih: Zattoo delivers live TV legally, just like a cable network. Presently Zattoo doesn’t create its own channel from archival contents, nor do we yet carry user-generated content. Instead, we work with broadcasters to re-distribute their content simultaneous, unaltered, and unabridged. Compared to Joost, we provide live TV viewing instead of archival content delivered on-demand.

Beat: We focus on carrying high quality production video.  TV broadcasters spent billions in producing good content, by working closely with them we don’t have to invest so heavily in production facilities and talents.

Zattoo appears to be less about emulating the “lean back” experience of TV but is more designed for use while multitasking. Is that true? Who is Zattoo aimed at, and how are people using the app?

Beat: We designed Zattoo for people who would like to multitask, watching TV while doing emails and web browsing.  Zattoo can comfortably run in a window in the background while you’re web browsing, without taking over your whole screen, or computing power.

Sugih: For each country we’re available in, we try to carry all the mainstream local TV channels.  Our viewing statistics shows that people are mostly interested in watching the top three or four most popular channels. If you look at the viewing distribution, we focus on the tall head of the distribution graph instead of the skinny long tail.

What kind of video compression does Zattoo use?

Sugih: We use H.264 for video compression.  The stream is sent at 400 Kbps, for a video resolution of 352×288 (or 480×288 for the wide aspect ratio). Unlike other P2P applications, Zattoo was designed and optimized from the start for live streaming, not file sharing.  This means that after you’re done watching Zattoo, you won’t find files littering and cluttering your hard drive.  P2P sharing under Zattoo happens only when you’re watching a live channel, after you quit Zattoo, your computer is not used to serve other peers.  Our design for live streaming also allows us to switch channels in 5 seconds, on average.

There are lots of standalone Internet TV apps coming out, as well as TV networks’ own catch-up services. How many Internet TV apps do you think users will welcome onto their desktop, and is this a problem?

Sugih: The Internet video market is still in its infancy.  Zattoo is offering live TV, others are offering on-demand, archival content.  Zattoo offers professionally produced video, others carry user-generated video. Each will have its own market and following.  Different distribution technologies may well be more suited for the different types of content and interaction. Whether users will prefer a single front-end for all these types of content, or whether users will naturally use a different front-end for each content type remains to be seen.  For example, it may be the case that a search engine is the most natural front-end for archival, on-demand content; while a channel list the most natural one for live channels.

Beat: What seems clear is users’ preference to have all content of the same type aggregated.  To have to go to a different web site to watch a channel is quite painful.  At the minimum, you’d have to get used to a different UI for each channel.  Whereas with Zattoo, you can watch all the channels with a single UI.

Right now Zattoo is only available in a few European countries, and with a limited channel lineup. How do you “sell” Zattoo to traditional TV networks? (Give us your elevator pitch!)

Beat: We now have altogether about 650 000 registered users in the countries we’ve launched. This clearly shows that people do find the Zattoo offering of live TV on the computer compelling.

Sugih: The computer is now the information and entertainment center. It is also the medium through which people socialize with their friends.  TV viewing is as much a social experience: people watch sports together and they talk about the last episode of Lost they’ve watched on TV the night before.  Zattoo brings the social experience of live TV watching to the new social medium of the computer.  People can now watch live TV while IM-ing their friends. People can watch TV together separately.

Lastly, do you plan to integrate any social features into Zattoo, such as realtime chat etc?

Sugih: Users already have their favorite chat apps, they’ve built up their own buddy lists and communities.  Zattoo has been designed from the beginning to play nicely with your existing apps. We don’t take over your computer and we don’t assume you’d want to do all your social networking within Zattoo.  We would like to integrate better with existing chat apps and other social networking apps or sites, where it makes sense, so that Zattoo extends the users’ existing social networking experience instead of forcing them to re-construct from scratch their social networks.

Thanks Sugih and Beat for your time!

last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

4 Responses to “Interview: Zattoo co-founders”

  1. David Mackey says:

    While I am glad for additional innovation and competition in this market, I like to focus on a single task at a time, thus I won’t take advantage of Zattoo’s streaming features and can’t quite understand why anyone would want streaming instead of on-demand – it seems the content will be identical.

  2. Steve O'Hear (editor) says:

    Zattoo is great for live news and other speech-driven TV. I use it in the way many use radio. Background mostly, and then my attention is grabbed at certain moments.

  3. Ryan Scott says:

    I’ve never liked live tv – commercials, can’t fast forward (many shows are littered with boring parts – the intro, outtro credits), etc. it’s tv on their schedule, not mine. That said I’m sure they’ll have an audience, I just don’t see that you’re going to have nearly the size market as with archived on-demand.

  4. Steve O'Hear (editor) says:

    Zattoo is great for live news and other speech-driven TV. I use it in the way many use radio. Background mostly, and then my attention is grabbed at certain moments.