I spent some time playing with Joost, the streaming video/online TV thingy from the makers of Skype and Kazaa. There’s a lot to like about it conceptually. I live in Helsinki where basically public television sucks and the commercial cable packages suck slightly less. So to me Joost is pretty compelling: major content publishers lining up to join and hassle free streaming straight to my screen. So I signed up via the “send me an invite” bullshit feature on the website. It’s just an ordinary web registration form except in this case you have to do it twice. Once to get the invite and then another time to get a Joost username (“duh! didn’t I just tell you who I was?!”). I reactivated my good old Yahoo mail address for the occasion. No way I’m giving my primary email address to these guys.

The user interface seems quite nice even though it is a bit unconventional. It launches into full screen and has a menu system with which you can select channels and programs. The program has no network settings menu, it either works or it doesn’t. This is probably the kind of simplicity end users need. However, from experience I know that things sometimes don’t work and when that happens it is nice if the UI informs you what the hell is going on. Things like whether it is actually connected or how many bytes are flowing to and from me are not represented in the UI. You could stare at a black screen forever (with the default wobbly screensaver thingy in the background) if for some reason you would be disconnected. This happened a couple of times and it’s quite annoying. Pretending everyting is ok is not the same as a usable experience.

Aside from this, the UI is pretty easy to figure out. I’m not sure I like the whole channels and programs paradigm. I guess this is what couch potatoes understand. The problem is that there is a huge and growing number of channels which each can have numerous programs. You have to first select and add a channel and then you can browse its programs and select one. Since there’s a lot to choose from it takes some time to find something. And scrolling through huge lists gets old pretty quick. The UI does not really support people in doing that. I would prefer to have a UI more like an RSS reader.

Technically the experience is not as smooth as it should/could be. But then, this is a beta and probably the experience will improve as the number of users skyrockets, as it will no doubt do when this goes public. Anyway, I found that a great number of channels simply don’t play at all or seem to have a problem getting the bytes to my machine. It seems that everything except the most popular stuff is likely to not work. No doubt this is due to the fact that there are less peers with that content. I have a 1 Mbit connection (roughly 100KB/s download and 30-40 KB/s upload), which should be enough although it probably is the bare minimum. My impression is that most content is not streamed at that rate anyway. Additional problem is that Welho, my finnish cable provider, sucks big time and that the motorola modem I use to connect to them is complete crap as well. So I’m not ready to point the finger at Joost for all network problems I have. Nevertheless, the difference between some stuff working just fine and some stuff not working at all I cannot explain using my network situation.

The most annoying thing about Joost is no doubt the fact that it inserts commercials before, after and even during the streaming. Commercials suck and there seems no way around them other than not using Joost. If Joost fails, it will be because of the fact that users reject the commercial content interrupting the crappy other content. They’ll have to be very careful with this. There’s just no way I’m going to sit through commercials when my browser is one alt+tab away. Also if the content is crap, I might end up not alt tabbing back. I’ve explored the channels on offering a bit and am not really impressed so far. Seems to be on a par with Zune which doesn’t have that much good content either.