Getting Joost

So, I've been promising to write about an intriguing new technology for a while and now I can as the story is set to air during tonight's CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. Be sure to check it out as you won't find this insider look anywhere else. In the meantime here are some details before you watch the visuals.

It's called Joost. Think what you will of the name, the concept is pretty revolutionary and will soon be coming to a desktop near you. The easiest way I can describe it is that it's like a combination of iTunes, YouTube and your car's dashboard. To put it even more simply, it's like TV over the Internet minus the cable companies. Oh, and free and legal.

Click here for Sieberg's Evening News report on Joost.
For the past couple of years the idea has been code-named The Venice Project, created by the same guys behind the controversial file-sharing service Kazaa and the immensely popular Internet phone call company Skype. They've now taken the same peer-to-peer or shared user backbone and outfitted it with broadcast-quality TV. (You'll remember peer-to-peer services like Napster in the late 1990s really set the table for digital music – and angered the recording industry in the process.) It's on-demand, always-on and eliminates the need for dedicated servers.

How is this possible for TV, you say? Well, you will have to endure some advertising. The Joost folks promise it will be limited to a minute or so per hour of programming. And not all your favorite shows will be available right out of the gate. For now it's limited to documentaries, specialty shows, music videos, some sports and older shows (as I recall there's a Lassie channel). Plus, there's always the lingering question of whether people prefer to watch TV or movies on their computer versus a big-screen plasma or LCD or something larger than the typical monitor.

The key to Joost's video streaming is the peer-to-peer network. Video online can tend to suffer from herky-jerky syndrome but with Joost the more people using the service the smoother it becomes. (Well, at a certain point it doesn't really matter, and they say you won't notice any difference one way or another.) Pieces of video, roughly several seconds long, are constantly transferred among the online users and stitched together without ever seeing it happen. None of the video actually lives on your computer, and you're not technically downloading anything. (That's the obvious difference with iTunes or Wal-Mart's new service, which allow you to keep the content on your machine.) That temporary nature, along with some fancy encryption, is also what Joost says will protect the content providers from piracy.

You definitely need a high-speed Internet connection but other than that it's fairly easy to use. Joost also includes many Web-style features like instant message within a particular program, a search engine and other nifty gadgets (or widgets for you Mac users). About 14,000 people have been beta-testing it for about 18 months or so, and the Joost creators say it should be ready for prime time in the spring. Will you switch it on?