Online Video Streaming: Not There Yet

Online Video Streaming: Not There Yet

Melissa J. Perenson, PC World
Oct 3, 2007

Streaming video–particularly television–has received a lot of
attention lately, what with sites such as Joost.com, MLB.com, and the
soon-to-beta Hulu.com
all talking it up. Even most TV networks offer some degree of streaming
for select shows. But is streaming really the wave of the future for
video downloads? I’m not convinced.

Until yesterday, Joost.com was in a private beta. Now that the
service has transitioned to a public beta–practically akin to a formal
launch, in this era of ongoing, Google-esque beta periods–I thought
I’d give the service another try. My colleague Mark Sullivan did an
early review of Joost while it was in its closed beta period. So did
our columnist Steve Bass. Both observed problems with image
quality–and apparently many of those issues persist in this more fully
developed beta version. In fact, my experiences did little to change my
opinion of streaming video.

Joost is not the first site to stream television shows, but it is
trying to go one step further than most services by aggregating
streaming content in an interactive manner. Download a player, and
between the download and the "Web 2.0"-powered controls in the
background, Joost not only offers on-demand streaming downloads but
tries to do so in a way that takes advantage of the PC’s connectivity
and provides reasons for you to watch TV on your PC.

Up Front: The Glitches

First, let’s be clear about what didn’t work well. Given that the
service is still in beta–and in its first day of public beta, no
less–I’m willing to cut it some slack. Just some.

I tried to download the player on its first day as a public beta,
but I received a network error message. After I later downloaded the
player and proceeded through the supereasy user-name sign-up, the
system had trouble when I followed the verification e-mail’s link to
vet my account.

I can forgive glitches like this on a first day–though I’m
surprised that they weren’t worked out by the public beta launch. I can
forgive the fact that, occasionally, I’d click on a selection and find
the page’s graphics missing, or that I’d get a page that said a
selection or an entire channel was inaccessible (I was annoyed, but
okay, once again, it could be first-day jitters). I can forgive the
fact that finding things on Joost’s Web site was sometimes easier to
browse at a glance than the far more visual presentation in the player
interface (the Web site clearly tells you in what region content may be
played; the player interface to Joost’s site does not).

Yet on the second day, things hadn’t improved much. The missing
channel and program worked again on day two, but the Explorer hung
repeatedly when I tried to search for a channel or program I had seen
on day one. And I saw more jitter in images than I did the day before.

Speaking of image quality, I personally found the noticeably mixed
image quality harder to swallow. Granted, the mini-window view, about
the size of a YouTube window, was actually quite good–vastly superior,
even, to what you see on YouTube. When I expanded it to full-screen
mode, however, that same image looked mediocre–soft, with
macroblocking artifacts and aliasing–across all of the content I
tried.

I found the advertising a mixed bag, too. I didn’t mind some of the
ads I encountered, specifically the quick, "brought to you by" things
that preceded the start of a video. Just a flash–that, I can deal
with. But the other ads proved intrusive and repetitive.

At least, the advertising breaks I encountered were just one ad per
break, typically a movie trailer. For example, about a third of the way
through an episode of Babylon 5, a 40-something-minute drama, a
commercial for the movie Good Luck Chuck popped up. Then another. And
another. I saw three in all, before my viewing was interrupted; by the
time I went back to the program, it was temporarily inaccessible.

More annoying still were the random pop-up ads that appeared on my
screen. Some went away on their own, while others encouraged me to
click on them to go to another site–or to make them go away.
Unfortunately, in the cases where I clicked the X to close the screen,
I still ended up opening a new Web page with the ad. Argh. Double that
frustration when I ended up at yet another Good Luck Chuck ad, this one
the actual movie site.

The Web Connection

Where Joost tries to distinguish itself is in its social-networking
features. A widget menu in the player lets you access your profile, do
instant messaging (using your Jabber or Gmail account; you can choose
to show yourself as available, or to show what you’re watching), invite
friends to Joost, rate a show, or enter a chat for the Joost channel
you’re watching. On day one, though, the channel didn’t work for
WCSN.com or Warner Brothers TV’s Sci-Fi Fix channel; on day two, I got
the chat channel to work for WBTV, but I was quite alone in there.

If Joost gains enough users to reach a critical mass–and if someone
else happens to be watching what I am, when I am, perhaps it could be
fun to reminisce about how campy the V: The Series pilot was compared
with the original miniseries, or how much we miss Babylon 5, or how
funny an episode of CBS’s current show How I Met Your Mother is.

You can invite friends to the Joost service, but so far I have not
found a way to share a specific video with a friend via an e-mail
invite. That’s an odd omission for a site that’s building itself from
the ground up to capitalize on social networking. How many YouTube
videos are shared via e-mail every day? (Sure, in Joost you can click
on the ‘i’ (info) icon, and then copy the link to an e-mail–but that’s
such an ungainly approach.)

You can create your own channels by dragging shows to the channel
bar while you’re exploring Joost’s content. You also can search for new
content, even as you continue to watch something else. Nifty tricks.
And if you want to build your own channel, maybe this hook alone will
bring you in to the service. I can see the novelty wearing off fast,
though. Users will maintain their interest in their customized channel
only if Joost carries enough fresh programming on an ongoing basis.

The Disappointment and Euphoria of Streaming

One of the reasons I’m being hard on Joost is because I see the
promise in an aggregate site for streaming television content. I can
see the promise in an on-demand archive of television content. I look
forward to seeing how the Web connectivity for Joost pans out. Not to
mention seeing how Joost’s catalog–and reliability–grow over time.

I was impressed by the breadth of Joost’s selection at the time of
this public beta launch. It was fun to find some old favorites on the
WBTV channel, for example, and to search on gymnastics and find WCSN’s
2006 World Championships women’s team coverage for free (WCSN’s own
site charges for access).

But I was also frustrated by the lack of depth–for the most part, I
felt like I was surfing random highlights of TV series (oh, wait–some
CBS content actually was mashed-up highlights), with a smattering of
episodes here and there that studios have deemed their "experiments."
And these episodes are presented equally as haphazardly: Babylon 5, at
least, I know, but looking through the content in the How I Met Your
Mother channel, for instance, I had no idea when the episodes were
from, what year they were from, or what order they were in. I felt as
if I were groping my way through the dark.

The Bigger Picture for Online Video Streaming

While I watched Joost, one big "but" came to my mind: I have a choice
as to where I get my TV. Streaming TV via my PC must compete with cable
broadcasts, with DVDs, and with my DVR–which, incidentally, looks
better at its lowest possible quality than Joost does.

Joost’s image quality is no worse than that of other streaming
services, perhaps (and at least this service works for the most part,
unlike the time I tried to watch a stream of Veronica Mars on The CW).
Yet watching Joost full-screen for any length of time is tiring to the
eyes. No, you won’t go blind while watching it, and yes, it’s free. But
the image quality does give me pause.

Beyond the convenience of on-demand video for the specific selection of
titles Joost provides, well, what does online streaming really offer?
If I’m willing to subject my eyes to inferior TV image quality, tell
me: Why should I spend big bucks on a high-definition TV set, let alone
a high-definition disc player and a whole new library of discs to
replace my hundreds of DVDs? I’d rather pay a fee to a service that
both aggregates enough content to warrant my signing up and provides a
superior viewing experience.

At this point, I see streaming as providing a limited service–useful
for occasions when I miss episode X of show Y and need to catch up, for
instance. Streaming is also filling a void, as in the example of the
excellent WCSN, a site that delivers targeted, niche sports coverage
that no one else on television, cable, or the Internet is doing
(gymnastics coverage in a small window is better than nothing at all).

Get the image quality up, improve the reliability, and bolster the
title selection, though, and the potential for Internet-based streaming
TV is only as limited as the constraints of the service provider’s
imagination.

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