Joost and video on demand

Screenshots And Video Of The New Joost

Joost has announced that they are changing the way their service works. Having used it quite a bit, I think this is probably the best thing for them since it was based on a misguided channel/TV metaphore. However, I wonder (along with Techcrunch) what their added value really is. It used to be that p2p seemed like it was the only way to escape from blocky, tiny videos with low frames per second and audio/video sync problems (aka Real Video, what happened to those guys anyway?).

Just last week I was looking at some videos on Vimeo and noticed that they have streaming HD now. Like Youtube, it starts streaming right away. Unlike Youtube, the video is sharp, full screen, high resolution, and mostly free from severe compression artifacts. In other words, they seem to have figured out a way to push large amounts of data to me cost effectively. I didn’t measure it but I estimate I was getting around 1mbps data from them at least.

Doing this on a large scale used to be really expensive. However, in recent years, content delivery networks (CDNs) have emerged that can cost effectively deliver large downloads to massive amounts of users. A CDN is actually similar to p2p. Essentially it involves ensuring you have a servers+bandwidth in every major provider network and keeping these servers in sync. Bandwidth inside a provider network is a lot easier to get. For providers the benefit is that they don’t need to use expensives bit pipes from other providers to get the content to you. So as long as they don’t run out of local bandwidth (of which they have plenty), they will prefer this. Also with less hops to the user, it is a lot easier to ensure there is actually enough bandwidth to the user. Essentially, this brings the best features of p2p to web streaming and makes Joost more or less redundant. Although arguably, they still have a slight cost advantage here due to their reliance on a CDN (this type of service of course costs money).

There are now several flash based streaming sites that use a CDN. What these services have in common is crappy content. There’s only so much amateur, 3 minute video fragments I can take. Also, 3 minute “commercial” fragments of full content normally broadcasted on really obscure tv channels in the middle of the night is hardly compelling. The reason for this is copyright legislation and a systematic ignoring of users outside the USA by media corporations.

Joost, flawed as it was, actually has some okish content hidden inside it. I quite enjoyed watching episodes of Lexx (an obscure but fun Canadian SF series from the nineties) and also a few full feature kung fu movies from the seventies as well as a few documentaries. I wouldn’t pay for any of that but if you are bored, it’s at least a way to pass some time. But Joost never managed to convince media corporations to provide premium content. They still haven’t solved that problem.

If you live inside the US, life is good, apparently. There’s Apple TV, Amazon, Hulu, and a few others like netflix offering massive amounts of good quality pay per view type HD content for download, and in some cases even streaming. Some of these services are ad supported, some of them are subscription based. Joost won’t stand a chance in that market.

However, for about 5.8 billion people outside the US, life is not so good. Here in Finland there are only a handful of video on demand companies whose offerings suck big time comparatively. Additionally, their UI is in Finnish which makes it extremely hard for me to use them or even to figure out what they are trying to offer me. The US based ones won’t deliver content outside the US because that requires separate deals with media companies for each country. In the US, one deal helps you reach a population of around 250 million users. In europe, countries are a lot smaller. My understanding is that to some extent this type of services is now also available in the UK and Germany, which are relatively large countries.

Finland has only 5 million inhabitants.In other words, no content for me. So, if I want to see a movie, I can hope one of the pay per view TV channels broadcasts it (I don’t have a subscription though); buy the DVD; go to the cinema; or hope one of the handful of local TV stations broadcasts something worth watching.