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IPTV/VoD: Cutting off the air supply

Just how juicy is Joost?

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Industry comment It was a beautiful day when the head of Disney finally came out and admitted piracy (or the "Dark Net" as they call it) is a business model. A bit like a drug addict coming out of rehab, it's hard to admit what you don't want to admit. But we still carry on and on with the same old story like a broken record.

HD-DVD's copy protection mechanism has been circumvented as was predicted a long time ago. History is repeating itself with LA's faithful declaring that it would never be practical to swap HD movies. Their fluffers presumably forgot to remind them that they said the same about DVD, which didn't work out exactly as they thought it would. Bandwidth and storage gets cheaper, and PC processors get faster.

Narrowstep has also had a pretty rough time of it, due to the mergence of Jeremy Allaire's latest creation, Brightcove. Its internet TV product signed up nearly 100 niche channels and it happily strolled along to do its IPO. Since then, it's booted out the CEO, lost a lot of customers, and they've presumably been scratching their heads deciding what to do next when everyone else is flocking to Brightcove, who do it for free and even get the advertisers for you.

Hopefully, there is a bright spark with a mug of coffee somewhere in their office that will point out that their biggest mistake was to develop around Windows Media and not the universally accessible Flash Video. Time to migrate to Flash Video, provide a "freemium" version of their service, and re-model the "premium" incumbent.

Talk of the town

Alas, all this is peanuts compared to the talk around the water cooler about The Venice Project, aka, Joost.

You have to hand it to our favourite P2P software makers. Joost is another marketing triumph in abstract and cartoon-like naming. Now you can get "Juice" from NPower, and "Joost" from the men who made Kazaa and Skype.

The industry has had its feathers rustled and is in bit of a flap. You could argue that a little creativity goes a long way in a world where imagination almost seems to be at a premium these days. The excitement over internet TV and fullscreen video over the net has surprised many people and driven them into a bed-wetting frenzy.

The story goes something like this. Long ago, two very clever people raided a whole load of open source libraries and put them together to make a peer-to-peer distribution mechanism that became their technological magic sauce. Their first invention was a piece of software called Kazaa, which allowed internet users to trade files on their computers. It upset the record industry a great deal, and it was eventually sold to Sharman Networks, who took it like a female canine from the RIAA later on.

The next jaunt was internet telephony, so they took the same P2P mechanism and used it to do encrypted voice audio inside a very nicely packaged piece of instant messaging software they called Skype. It was a very usable product that saved everyone money and worked nicely through firewalls. They sold it to eBay for a few billion dollars. Quite why it was worth that much, nobody knows.

Fast forward to today, and the envy and fear they inspire in people has become greater than the products they have built. The next step is to take the same P2P technology and use it to distribute TV and video, so they codenamed it The Venice Project. They even have a competitor this time in the form of Babelgum, who has been quietly rivalling them with the same idea. It's a lot of hype and hysteria over the simple fact that it's the same people who did Skype and Kazaa, and were very successful.

But past success does not guarantee future success. The same magic sauce of putting a software application on top of users downloading from each other instead of a central location has its limits. The Golden Goose may be nearing the end of its shelf life.

Joost uses the XULRunner engine, which for the uninitiated is essentially the Mozilla Foundation's version of Microsoft's XAML. It is a mark-up based language like HTML and allows for rapid application development. Like Firefox, it is a simple barebones product that has a flexible plug-in architecture that allows others to develop their own custom extensions (widgets) for it.

The 240Mb of heavily encrypted live video it transfers every hour is MPEG 4 AVC (H.264 or Part 10), encoded between 300-600Kbps and needing a 1Mbps connection to run comfortably. Human perception of time means that the network response must be less than 150ms in any audio/video system to appear to be real time.

There's no doubt the technology is very sexy. The video starts up incredibly quickly and the makers' obsession with unobtrusive usability is an enjoyable trademark, meaning that much of the normal TV experience is preserved. Unlike its predecessors, however, the delivery infrastructure is not fully decentralised as there needs to be a critical mass of users watching the same content before it can be. Servers in the UK and Holland seed the grid and originate the streams. P2P offsets the traffic load from a central distribution site (e.g. website, data centre) but with video content still needs localised caching due to the sheer size of data that needs to be fed through.

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