Joost good friends?

David Wood, Head of New Tehcnologies of the European Broadcasting Union asks who will win the heart of broadband.

By David Wood

Is there some mistake? The hottest Internet idea is not from California? Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström are Europeans. The two Euronerds who brought you Skype – free phone calls which don’t always work but usually do – and the P2P service Kazaa – have recently launched an “Internet TV” service, Joost

Joost provides (or at least will provide when beta test is complete) a package of TV channels, and programmes on demand. Sounds like an ‘IPTV’ or digital cable service? Looks like one too? But this time it is coming via the Open Internet, and anyone in the world can watch with no special set top box or local network.

IPTV networks are ‘walled garden’ networks which offer a package of channels, programmes on demand, play along multimedia, and stand alone interactivity. They are convenient because the costs to us are usually part of a network operator’s triple play or quadruple play subscription package – a one stop shop for all our media and communication needs. The DVB Project continues to play an important part in the development of IPTV technologies, and will help converge the world on common standards.

The traditional wisdom is that IPTV will provide many features that the ‘Open Internet’ cannot, and will be more attractive for ‘lean backers’ or ‘coach potatoes’. The principle advantage is a high ‘Quality of Service’. An IPTV system is engineered so that what the viewer asks for, he gets, without any argument, or the ‘buffering’ delays we used to get on Internet delivered video. Open Internet is a ‘best effort’ system, rather like a motor highway – when the highway is full of cars, things can grind to a halt. This is the price of it not being a ‘walled garden’.

But there are those who believe that things will improve on the ‘Open Internet’, and that, in time, we will see many systems like Joost being a ‘reliable’ Open Internet system which coach potatoes are happy with.

The author believes that the two main technologies which will reduce the Internet route congestion weakness most are P2P (‘Peer to peer technology’) and ‘multicasting’.

For P2P systems, everyone opens their computer to others, so the streaming or downloading can be done without congesting the main highway back to the source. You get your stream from other people who are watching or have stored the same thing. The EBU (among others) has been testing P2P technologies, and the last Eurovision Song Contest was live streamed in quite high quality with a peer to peer technology. It worked faultlessly, and we will do the same again this May (2007).

Multicasting is rather like passing from house to house with the same content dropping of a copy as you go, so though the content can be a bit delayed, you do not congest the main highway back to the source. We are less advanced in trails of multicasting than P2P, but it is coming, and will probably be helped by the next generation Internet Protocol IPv6.

It may be that these technologies will reduce the Quality of Service gap between the Open Internet and IPTV. Furthermore, Open Internet users may have no subscription to pay apart from a broadband connection. But the biggest advantage of all may be in choice of content. This could be huge and come from all over the world. Like Internet Radio today, where there are between 30,000 and 100,000 radio stations to listen to, the same cornucopia may be true of watchable Internet TV.

So Joost (and others) may be the shape of things to come. But…..let’s not jump to the conclusion that this is just throwing a switch and it happens! There is still a lot to be done to make the Open Internet the place people go for their normal viewing. We also still have much to learn about technology, what people want, and how much they are willing to pay for it. Don’t put the TV or IPTV box in the attic yet.