"Free Web TV." these words would make even the most spoiled tech nerd stiffen with joy. But the promise of a seamless Net-TV alliance has left us feeling limp: 10-minute clips on YouTube, network "webisodes" posted after their air date, South Park-only sites that could do with some variety. Is this the best we can do?
Not if two Vikings have their way. If anyone can marry the Internet and TV without any awkward pre-nups, it's the founders of Kazaa and Skype. Scandinavians Niklas Zennstrºm and Janus Friis are known as Internet pioneers (and now millionaires) who created the file-sharing powerhouse Kazaa and Net-phone combo Skype, the latter sold to eBay Inc. for $2.6 billion (U.S.) in 2005.
They're not content to sleep on beds of money. They'd rather start a new company that uses the peer-to-peer networking power of the Kazaa code, and instead of grabbing music from around the world, it displays streaming-video of DVD quality.
Joost, still in beta form and yet to be released, is a piece of software that could make everyone winners. The public can download the player app free and watch streamed programs on demand on their PC. Along with top-notch streaming through the notorious P2P technology, Joost allows viewers to chat using instant messenger programs or create branded channels with custom content. If these veteran Web mavens have learned anything, it's to let the public play with toys. TV can't be inactive any more.
Coincidentally, two out of three major broadcasters signing with Joost are Toronto-based. JumpTV, headquartered on King West, partnered with the new company to supply "ethnic television" from more than 70 countries. CHUM signed with Joost last week, offering content ranging from MuchMusic's Live@Much to FashionTelevision reportage.
So far, the only non-Canuck in the Joost camp is Viacom, weighing in with a hefty dose of stoner-approved Comedy Central and MTV shows.
Sounds like Joost is aiming for the coveted young-male demographic. And where there's testosterone, expect advertisers to come looking for some action. Joost is attractive to advertisers because Web TV can pinpoint people's location and viewing habits and create tailored advertising for them. Ad companies could buy The Colbert Report fans in a certain area code, for instance.
But here's the beautiful part of the sales pitch: Joost plans to allow only one minute of advertising per hour of viewing. And with the software's TiVo-like controls, ads are less of a nuisance than with the static boob tube.
So the Kazaa dudes want to introduce us to free TV through the Internet, completely legit, with barely any ads. If this doesn't change mainstream media to the core, what will?
Unlike the file-sharing hoopla that scared industry execs, the online video trend is urging the major networks to get on board or miss out on the Next Big Thing.
"Joost is an on-demand experience that will help us get a new audience abroad," says Maria Hale, vice-president of business development for CHUM Television. "The model appeals to us, the lineage of the founders intrigued us and the technology definitely impressed us."
How does Joost work? Zennstrºm and Friis realized that the best way to move files like MP3s across long distances is through a network of users (or peers). So the Joost team will use their branded networking technology called Global Index to handle the millions of bits flowing between global users.
Add massive servers that can hold 80,000 half-hour TV episodes and Joost becomes a platform for more than just Ice T's Rap School. It's only a matter of time before Hollywood and more media giants start filling those servers with the fix every Net junkie needs.
The stage is set for Joost to ripple wider than Skype or Kazaa ever will. Broadband is spiking in Canada, hooking up PCs to TV screens isn't the head-scratcher it once was, and major networks are even creating their own online video portals.
Essentially, Joost could finally become our favourite way of watching prime-time: on our own terms, completely free and without a commercial's repetitive idiocy.
There's nerd talk that 2007 will be the year of the iPhone. Or Nintendo Wii's complete dominance. But the dark horse waiting in the shadows and poised to step into the limelight could be the most revolutionary piece of technology we've seen since YouTube served us tasty video fragments.
Instead of slices, though, Joost will be dishing out complete entrees, on the house.