March 29, 2007 Television: Welcome To The Machine
 

The New Pepsi TV Challenge: Joost vs. Babelgum

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By Paul McEnany

As word comes down that Viacom is ditching YouTube for little-known start-up Joost, [pronounced juiced] I thought now would be a good time to compare the two big players in the peer-to-peer television network game, and whether or not either one can put a dent in the telecom stronghold.

Joost and Babelgum [pronounced babelgum] both use peer to peer technology, essentially meaning the backbone of their infrastructures, such as bandwidth, is supplied by its users. I don't pretend to understand all the technological aspects, but basically, they're both working to create an easy method of viewing video on your computers, and as your computers more easily link to television sets, that as well.

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While clearly there's opportunity for these new networks to break the old network structure of simply them to us, there's obviously some major hurdles to cross as they work to avoid YouTube's perceived pitfalls.

A little background, Joost (originally called the Venice Project) is the brainchild of the founders of both Kazaa and Skype, Niklas Zennstrom, and Janus Friis. Although Kazaa still technically exists, it was essentially a casualty of the RIAA crackdown that gobbled up most peer to peer networks like Napster. Skype, a VoIP (voice over internet protocol) was bought by EBay for 2.5 billion dollars.

Babelgum, was founded by Silvio Scaglia, who was also the founder of fastweb, an Italian telecom.

Before I compare the two, it's more important to talk about their common challenges, as those may be the greatest battles of all.

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First, can the web support it? You'll hear many people, Mark Cuban especially, talk about how the infrastructure of the web wasn't made for, and can't handle extreme proliferation of video on the scale of YouTube, or P2P networks such as these. And, he's probably right. Our current systems would likely crumble under the pressure of successful launches of either one of these new platforms, possibly screeching the flow of information on the web to a near stand still. These could be very real challenges we face, but I can't believe that these problems will not be overcome.

Simply put, there is money to be made in updating our systems to the point these can be handled. Lots of money. Cuban-esque wealth, even. And, when there's money to be made, there's usually someone out there who will figure out how to make it. So, does this mean strengthening the pathways or better condensing the files? I don't pretend to know, but I'd be willing to bet someone will figure it out.

Second, can they offer as much functionality as a DVR? Why would I use these networks if they're just not as good as what I already have? Neither can fast forward nor rewind easily. That's a huge problem for me, as the blogosphere has already taken my attention span down to that of a gnat. I like to jump around, and they need to make it easier to do so.

If they won't offer those simple features, TiVo could have a greater opportunity by integrating the two. I wouldn't be surprised if they're already considering this direction as an enhancement to the television we know today.

Third, how much quality content will each have? Neither Joost, nor Babelgum seem interested in becoming a heavily user-generated experience, which can be a good thing, as long as they make it easy for serious vloggers and amateur producers to upload their own stuff, too. I don't have much problem with the lack of inclusion of fourteen year-olds bemoaning the state of humanity into their parent's web cam, but there should be some sort of happy medium between the two.

There's real opportunity in helping to further steal back control from the networks, and allowing the users to become the stars. We really have no way to know how open they'll be at this point, but I'd hope that neither looks to become just another monolith.

Fourth, how will advertising be treated in this space? Both networks plan to be completely advertiser supported, but how? Will they try

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to jam the thirty second spot down our throats? Will we still have to deal with three minute commercial blocks? If the answer is yes, then give it up now. They'll be wasting their time.

They have to innovate from the beginning, giving the control of the delicate balance of advertising to content back to the users, and not letting the almighty buck overwhelm that need. Using the Bebo, or Flip model of allowing users to have some level of choice in the advertising they see would be a good start, but my hope is that the commercial breaks will be minimal, and advertisers could work with the networks toward a more mutually beneficial end.

But, with that said, how do these networks stack up against each other? Comparing is a bit of a challenge give that they're both barely into their infancy. But, here it goes...

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CONTENT:

Joost obviously has the advantage here. Even before the addition of the extra Viacom content pulled from YouTube, the breadth of shows is much greater, and actually somewhat overwhelming if you have no agenda from the start.

Babelgum needs to make some content deals badly, or open it up to the masses. They do have some good stuff, but it doesn't take long to get bored and start searching for the TV remote.

As both these networks are in Beta, I don't want to spend too much time with this. It's much more important what they will do, rather than what they are doing currently.

Winner: Joost

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SEARCH:

One of my favorite Joost attributes is the ability to search for shows, then create a channel based on that request. For instance, I could search for Paris Hilton, and then only receive shows that involve her in some way on that channel.

With that said, Joost's search is still not anywhere near the level it needs to get to. One of the advantages of platforms like this is quantity of content. Because of this, it will be necessary to easily to find new shows. They do provide a "joost suggests" section, but I'd much rather have the ability to search shows based on popularity and view count.

Another major issue is with linking. It's incredibly important to the health of both these networks that they find a way to easily link to shows from social networks. Right now, it's much too hard to share content with your friends.

Babelgum is way further behind with search. Simply, they don't have it. Until this feature is added, I really don't understand what the point is.

Winner: Joost

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PICTURE QUALITY:

Actually, both are surprisingly good. Now, I wouldn't exactly call them television quality, but they're definitely better than expected. I doubt many people would actually turn up their noses. The problem with getting much higher quality is the likelihood of skipping, which will kill either one of these networks quickly.

Luckily, I didn't really have many skipping or quality problems with either.

Winner: It's a wash.

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DESIGN:

Both these guys definitely look sleek, especially Babelgum. It has a bit of an advantage with the smaller amount of content, so be interesting to see how it looks as they add functionality.

Winner: Babelgum

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USABILITY:

Both networks will have their share of troubles here as they move towards faster expansion. Even regular techies will probably have a few "huh?" moments as they navigate through the process. Some of these little quirks take getting used to, and some still leave me with question marks.

For instance, Joost's channel selection is a little awkward. They force you to switch between the channel guide and my channels to check out shows. So, to sample a show, you actually have to add the channel, which is a little annoying.

Also, when scrolling through menus, you never come to the end, it just starts repeating. On the main menu, you'll see a rotating list of help and preferences (like help, preferences, help, preferences…), which can be a pain when your scrolling through a list of more than a couple items. I generally want to know when I'm to the end.

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Babelgum suffers from the same inconsistencies. You can add your own channels, but I couldn't figure how the hell to add any shows to them. They do have a nice feature where you can add a show to a "videos" section, but it's still quite difficult to maneuver.

Winner: Joost

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TOOLS:

Both these networks are touting their social aspects, which could really offer a tangible added benefit to regular television. This is also where Joost shows the largest advantage over Babelgum. With features like channel chat, which, as the names suggests, allows you to chat with others watching the same channel, integration with Google Talk, and the ability to create News Tickers by adding RSS feeds, Joost is well on their way to creating a more robust social network.

On the Babelgum site, they claim to help you, "Discover new content through friends, contacts and people with shared interests, and tell others about the content you love or hate." I didn't see anything that would allow for this, but if they're making these statements, I would hope they're on the way.

Neither network is anywhere near where they have to get. Although both allow for user ratings, neither yet allows for user reviews, which will be radically important in differentiating from normal television. I would hope that each will be creating (or buying) a social networking site to coincide with the platform as well. Building a YouTube or MySpace-like personal page, with user information, favorite shows, etc., will make it much easier to navigate through, and find quality shows.

Winner: Joost

Overall, Joost is obviously much more advanced than Babelgum, but as I said, their competition is less with each other, and more with the obstacles they collectively face at this point. But, with proven innovators at the helm of both, it's not unlikely that one of these players will change television as we know it.

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Paul McEnany is a new media and marketing strategist at Levenson and Hill in Dallas, TX and works with clients in business categories ranging from logistics to QSR. He is a contributor to Beyond Madison Avenue, one of the most popular marketing blogs as well as his own personal marketing blog, Hee Haw Marketing. A budding activist, he can be reached at paul.mcenany@gmail.com.

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