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Is this online innovation the 'new way of watching TV'?

Another day, another "new way to watch TV". It has been a busy few months for those seeking to reinvent the box - and it's perhaps inevitable that somebody will fall victim to hype fatigue. Joost's founders will be hoping it doesn't turn out to be them.

This latest phase (we could call it TV 3.0) of the viewing revolution kicked off in 2005 with the launch of Microsoft's Media Center software package - and the realisation that Bill Gates and his cohorts were betting the future of the company on their belief that the internet would rapidly become the dominant mode of television distribution as the 21st century began to unfold.

There has been no shortage of entrepreneurial contenders queuing up to prove him right, though their vision has tended to be through-the-keyhole TV - fragmented, bitty content in small-screen formats.

For periods of 2006, the focus shifted away from computers, as neophiles predicted confidently that, actually, mobile was the real future of TV; but by the end of the year, the focus was well and truly back on computer screens, with Google's acquisition of YouTube.

This year has been about the old dinosaurs biting back, with Viacom suing YouTube for its unauthorised use of clips from Viacom shows. Google's lawyers, to their eternal credit, cut straight to the chase by responding that piracy is a fundamental right of anyone operating on the web. The ruling on that one will absolutely define the shape of the media world to come.

Meanwhile, other old dinosaurs have been launching content streaming facilities., for instance, relaunched just last week. The BBC is introducing new iPlayer software technology in the near future. 4oD chugs along nicely; Sky by Broadband can never be underestimated.

So, against this white noise of unremitting newness, Joost may struggle initially to achieve cut-through. On the other hand, its launch strategy - to create a buzz and (it hopes) viral momentum by beta-testing the service among new technology opinion-formers - is arguably rather canny.

And interestingly, in the context of current litigation, Viacom is one of the major media owners to have reached an agreement with Joost.

1. Joost is the latest brainchild of Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, the enfants terribles of the internet economy. They were the founders of the notorious music file-sharing operation Kazaa; and then launched Skype, an internet telephony service that used the same peer-to-peer decentralised software approach pioneered on Kazaa. It was such a success that it was bought by eBay for $2.6 billion in October 2005. Now they are using a decentralised networking structure once again to create what they claim will be the highest picture quality yet seen on an online television service.

2. But this isn't Joost's only unique proposition. Its other major selling point is that users can combine TV viewing with access to an instant messenger platform (rendered in a semi- transparent overlay within the TV picture) that will allow them to chat online with other users. Joost hopes this will encourage virtual communities to build up around specific programming events.

3. Unlike YouTube, the content is all legitimately acquired. Users will be able to view on-demand programming from CBS, Viacom and Turner Broadcasting. Joost will not aim to offer exclusive or specially created content.

4. It is an ad-funded service. Short-form content (ie. music videos) will offer pre- and post-roll slots in which advertisers can air 30-second commercials. As well as the top and tail slots, longer programmes will also offer centre breaks - and during these, advertisers can place an overlay within their commercial, inviting viewers to click and link to the advertiser's website, while the video stream freezes until the viewer returns. Joost will also be experimenting with smaller "hand raiser" overlays within the programming stream.

5. Joost has signed up around 30 launch advertisers, including Nike, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, General Motors and Visa. Joost claims it will, uniquely, be able to offer two complementary measures of audience behaviour - a standard online measure of clicks on overlays, plus a broader-based piece of research, undertaken by Frank N Magid Associates, that will attempt to measure viewing patterns and advertising effectiveness.



- The old theory, when "new ways to watch TV" first started appearing on the horizon, was that content would be king. If that theory is, in the long run, correct, then Joost will turn out to be a very small earthquake indeed. It doesn't offer (nor, indeed, does it intend to offer) stuff that you can't see elsewhere.

- Advocates of YouTube argue that it is creating a genuinely new type of television experience, with premium content stolen from big media owners jostling for space with charmingly amateurish rubbish.

- Joost hopes that picture quality will prove a winning offer. And it's also pinning its hopes on the unique combination of formats that it's able to offer. You can sit back and watch on your PC or you can sit forward and exchange messages with other users. It should, at the very least, expect high levels of trial among members of the YouTube generation.


- It's no surprise to see 30 of the world's biggest advertisers testing the water here. They will be especially interested to see what sort of response Joost's overlay formats will stimulate - because this could become a genuinely ground-breaking technique. Advertisers will be reassured by Joost's commitment to begin gathering data on this right from the off.

- Ad sales in the UK are the responsibility of David Orman, the vice-president of ad sales. Orman was formerly a sales executive at Eurosport, then Massive Incorporated, and most recently at 19 Entertainment. He reports to the vice-president of global advertising, David Clark, who is based in the US.