Joost, nee The Venice Project, hasn’t even officially launched yet, so it would be premature to declare them the victors in bringing the television experience to an internet device near you. Plenty of other people are out there trying to figure out ways to use broadband to disrupt current distribution models and make some change in the process, including Silvio Scaglia. The founder of Fastweb and Omnitel has invested EU10 million in his own IPTV venture, Babelgum.
Talking to the Financial Times, Scaglia remarked, “When I started work on this a year and a half ago I was afraid we’d end up with five [competing IPTV services]…The fact it’s still two probably gives us a good lead.” We gave the beta a spin, and while it’s certainly a charmingly simple and effective product, just being early to the table doesn’t guarantee you a larger share of the meal.
What Babelgum lacks right now is a compelling differentiator — it needs to offer better content, better features or better technology than Joost and any other upstarts if it wants to win.
What I looked at “is a simplified version of the service that will be released when we go public,” according to the beta download page. Simplicity is one of its most endearing qualities, though: it looks and feels a lot like watching television, as it was probably meant to. The interface is slick and straightforward — no instructions were provided or, frankly, needed to get comfortable. The download and install took just a few minutes, and once logged in, the video content began straight away.
You can choose to view Babelgum in a window or full screen, and can choose between three different video display sizes within that box (though only one resolution, up-sampled). Controls pop up when you move your mouse, and include a small ‘remote’ for changing channels or adjust volume, a slider showing the length of the program, and general controls to view channel and program info, organize bookmarked videos and change your settings. And that’s about it.
The technical specifications aren’t particularly demanding — Windows XP with Quicktime 7 installed running on a 1GHz Pentium with half a gig of memory and a decent video card. My 2005 Thinkpad had no trouble with it, and the streaming and playback seemed smooth over my 150KBps DSL connection. Granted, the video quality on a screen any bigger than 15″ wouldn’t be acceptable, which puts it ahead of YouTube, behind unauthorized downloads, and about even with Joost.
The channels themselves weren’t particularly compelling, but I understand the difficulty in acquiring a lot of content (or revealing your license partners) this early in the game. There are movie trailers, canned reports from AP and Reuters, episodes of Rocketboom and one channel that’s just commercials. (Which is actually something I’ve been arguing should have been done years ago — and no, MTV doesn’t count).
The only real interactivity is in the ability to drill down to clips through the TV menu and add them to your video favorites, where you can then further lump them into folders — what you can’t do yet is watch, or offer, a stream of your favorites as a custom channel. You can also rate episodes, presumably so that a recommendation system can be added later. You also can’t tag a clip as a favorite while it’s playing on the main screen, which would seem the most natural place to do it.
It’s in this area of tension between just watching the lights flicker by and actually tagging and organizing content that somebody will find the sweet spot. YouTube isn’t something you can just sit back and watch, but does offer powerful tools for searching, linking and ranking content to make it more findable. As it stands, Babelgum is still on the other end of the spectrum — it’s great at just pushing a constant stream of stuff to watch, but customizing your experience is limited.
Having taken the long tail view to heart, Babelgum is looking to sign up lots and lots of niche content, both from big clearinghouses like the wire services who like non-exclusive deals and from independent producers such as vloggers with a professional touch. It’s free to add your content and they’re guaranteeing $5 per 1000 views of a clip. While I didn’t see how ads will be deployed, that’s what’s expected to pay for it all. Content rights security is accomplished through unspecified DRM and by virtue of the content being free to view anyway.
While it will be interesting to see what features are added and whether or not content compelling enough to attract an involved community are in Babelgum’s future, they haven’t convinced me that they, or anyone else in the space, is going to be truly disruptive. If it catches fire in the vlogosphere and signs up a major network or two to provide content, then I could see it as worthy of some veg-out sessions. But there’s still plenty of room for someone to wait until both Joost and Babelgum launch, fix what’s wrong with their approaches, and beat them both.