NEW YORK — Watching video online in small, fuzzy boxes is heading the way of rabbit ears.
Some highly anticipated Web sites are being modeled on making the experience of watching video online more like watching television. These sites rely on software that enlarges the interface so that it fills your computer screen — from edge to edge.
This new wave of applications is led by Joost and includes VeohTV and Babelgum. Though all are in beta (testing) phases, the hype has been mounting — leading many to claim the next big advance in online video is imminent.
"The distribution problem is starting to get solved by many different people, but the experience of online video is still very poor," said Veoh founder Dmitry Shapiro. "Companies like Veoh and Joost are trying to create a more TV-like experience for viewers."
Of course, YouTube, which Google Inc. bought for $1.76 billion last fall, is the site that braved the online video path. Though YouTube offers the option of a full-screen mode, video is typically watched in a smaller box that can be embedded in other sites.
These new sites, all of which are ad-supported and transmit video with peer-to-peer technology, are seeking to move beyond YouTube by improving video quality, attracting professionally produced content and expanding the viewing experience — which is to say: to be more like TV.
Babelgum's slogan is: "TV experience, Internet substance." Veoh touts: "VeohTV makes watching Internet as simple as watching television." Joost simply states: "The new way of watching TV."
Each of the three work nearly the same way. You download the application from the respective Web site. When that's finished, you have a desktop icon that will launch the application. It then fills your screen with an on-demand-style choice of videos arranged in near broadcast-quality channels.
Joost — founded by Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom (the founders of the Internet telephone company Skype and the music-sharing service Kazaa) — says it has created enough buzz to attract 1 million beta users.
Joost's strategy has been to sign deals with major content providers, making copyright lawsuits unlikely. (YouTube, on the other hand, is being sued by Viacom Inc. for more than $1 billion.) It has inked deals with Viacom, CBS, CNN, the NHL, Sony and others.
"The early stages of video content on the Internet was a lot of user-generated stuff, stuff like my grandmother and her cat," said Joost chief executive officer Mike Volpi. "What we're trying to do is evolve that experience into something that the viewer doesn't view just out of interest, but actually builds an affinity with that particular programming content."
Volpi notes users won't watch long-format video "on a postage stamp-size thing." But altering viewing habits to watch more than 5-minute clips even on a full-screen application may be difficult.
A poll conducted last September by The Associated Press and Time Warner Inc.'s AOL found that only one in five online video viewers have watched or downloaded a full-length movie or TV show.
James McQuivey, a TV and media technology analyst for Forrester Research, believes people will grow more accustomed to long-form material as it becomes easier to download it.
But he cautions that Joost is "an evolutionary step, not a revolutionary one."
"If there's anything that Joost does, it moves the ball forward," said McQuivey. "It tells people that the TV and the PC are not two separate worlds. But as long as we're still mimicking the TV on the PC, we're failing to appreciate the value of combining those two worlds."
Babelgum bears many similarities to Joost, but is primarily focused on video from independent producers, rather than mainstream sources, said co-founder and CEO Valerio Zingarelli.
Zingarelli said Babelgum also plans to embed its platform in set-top boxes by the end of 2008, which would make its content viewable on traditional TV sets. Apple offers such a box for video purchased on iTunes, and more video companies are expected to follow suit.
Veoh has both a YouTube-like site at Veoh.com and VeohTV, which Shapiro called a "video browser." Though VeohTV is pursing deals with the major TV networks and many Hollywood studios, its approach is to cull all the Internet's free video in one place — "like Google for video," said Shapiro. It also allows viewers to record video like a DVR.
Veoh even took the pre-emptive step of recently suing Universal Music to bar it from taking legal action against Veoh. Many content providers would prefer its material to be shown on its own platform, where it controls the surrounding advertising.
"For the consumer to try to figure out where to find video that they're interested in and navigate their interfaces becomes extremely difficult," said Shapiro.
The Internet and television are increasingly being portrayed as on a collision course, the two destined to fuse within 10-20 years when TV could become just another form of high-speed data. But those visions remain relatively far in the future. Online video is still in its infancy, Shapiro said.
"People are just starting to discover it and understand it," Shapiro said.
Joost, Babelgum and Veoh have several heavyweights to compete with, including Microsoft's LiveStation, Apple TV and the recently unveiled Hulu, a joint venture of NBC Universal and News Corp.
The analyst McQuivey doubts YouTube should be worried because its interactivity has "created a social kind of viewing."
Joost, in particular, hopes to accomplish something that similarly fosters discussion among viewers. Volpi says Joost will blend the viewing experience with real-time water-cooler conversation.
Joost plans to become available to the public before the end of the year, Babelgum is planning to launch in March, and Shapiro expects to keep VeohTV in beta no longer than a year from now.
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