Exclusive: Inside The Venice Project, Built On Mozilla

The Venice Project is not just another online video start-up. The Luxembourg-based company is the latest co-production of the two-person hit factory of Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis. The founders of Kazaa and Skype are hoping that The Venice Project will upend the television experience just as their earlier efforts turned the music and phone businesses on their respective heads.

And while the glam duo might hog the headlines, the task of making the Venice Project a reality falls on the shoulders of Fredrik de Wahl, a lanky Swede with a quiet demeanor who has been a cohort of Messrs. Zennstrom and Friis for more than half a decade.

Unlike many of his Silicon Valley counterparts de Wahl prefers to stay out of the limelight. Sipping on his steaming hot, standard-issue Starbucks coffee, de Wahl outlined the vision for the Venice Project and answered our questions about Venice Project’s underlying technologies and why it is different from Skype and Kazaa.

In our two-hour long conversation, it became clear that while unlike Skype TVP is looking to work with incumbent content owners and networks, the rest of the game is being called from the same playbook.

Mozilla at the Core

After Zennstrom left to work full time as the CEO of Skype, de Wahl took over as the chief executive of JoltId, the company that controls the peer-to-peer technology that powers not only Kazaa, but also Skype and now The Venice Project. “Skype licenses the P2P technology from Joltid,” de Wahl says.

He explains that just like a “Skylib” enables voice and chat services on the Joltid’s p2p layer, The Venice Project runs on a media streaming library the company has nick named Anthill. The company uses a H.264 codec licensed from CoreCodec, a US-based company, much in the manner Global IP Sound provided the voice codecs for Skype. “CoreCodec is the best of breed H.264 video codec and is efficient and has the high quality we need,” de Wahl says.

Running on top of these core technologies is a highly modified version of Mozilla browser, which makes it easy for the company to port its client to any operating system – Mac, Linux or even mobile operating systems. The user interface is built using Adobe’s SVG technology. In other words, it’s a Web-enabled hybrid application, much like the brilliant Songbird meta-music client.

Plugging Into the Project

The Mozilla framework will allow the company to layer web services into its client – social networking, video sharing and chat to mention a few. “I think very soon people can start writing plug-ins for the Venice Project,” he says. Mozilla has blossomed because of its lightweight footprint, security features, but mostly because of a vibrant developer community that has written plug-ins that extend Mozilla in many different ways.

(Update: Some of you asked for more clarifications on this bit, and I am working on getting more details. However, there is a comment about the client, from one of the developers over here that explains it quite clearly.

He says, “SVG is not the only technology used for the user interface, although it is the most used. XUL, XHTML and CSS are also used. This product is a great proof that XML-based markup technologies are ideal to create internet-integrated desktop applications.”

I have emailed the company to get official details, and will post them soon enough. )

By embracing the off-the-shelf technologies, he says, “it buys the company time to market.” Like The Venice Project client, he expects more and more start-ups to use the Mozilla framework to build hybrid applications, because this reduces the “software cycle” quite drastically. (I have written about this trend in the past, both on GigaOM and for the Business 2.0 magazine.)

When asked if Mac client was in the cards, de Wahl confirmed that the company was working on a client, but refused to give a timeline. A Linux client is also on the drawing board. “Basically we can port this to any platform including Apple TV and set-top boxes within weeks not months,” he added. Even PS3 and Nintendo Wii! Now that has our attention.

The Bandwidth Conundrum

Earlier this month there was a blog post that pointed out that TVP could lead to violation of ISP terms of service because as an application it consumes 250 megabits per hour. The post set off a furor. Some low-priced (but not all) plans are capped in terms of bandwidth and data transfer capacity, which could limit TVP’s acceptance.

The huge bandwidth on TVP is consumed when the application is actively streaming. But in an idle state, a very minimal amount of bandwidth is used, de Wahl explained. When I pressed him, de Wahl said that it drops to about a sixth of what it would be in an active state. He says the company is trying to work out the kinks, and reminded us that TVP is still in the beta phase. “Online video is a bandwidth-intensive application, and all net video providers will be consuming a lot of bandwidth,” he argued in his defense.

The Content Challenge

The technical challenges could be easily overcome with technical chutzpah; it is the content, or lack thereof, that might be company’s bete noir. TVP as it stands today is so devoid of content that it reminds you of New York during a particularly fierce snowstorm. In a world easily amused by three-minute shorts on Metacafe, TVP has to prove itself as a viable replacement for produced content.

“We are in the beta phase and are trying to solve all the technical issues, because we want to go to content producers with a full solution,” says de Wahl. He points out that the system is built for content owners to not only expand online, but also retain their branding, and monetize that content as well.

He argues that since the company will be able to offer global-sized audiences to the professional content creators, TVP will attract more and more content. Of course everyone is trying to do exactly that, including a Google-gobbled YouTube and well-funded start-ups such as Brightcove!

But de Wahl argues that the Venice Project platform can deliver content geo-targeting, and more-focused advertising. “Anyone, even a small professional producer of content can instantly go public,” he says, and just for effect says, “NBC can create 500 niche channels.” Maybe that is not a good thing, but a streaming cricket matches, now that is a whole different story!

As our conversation came to an end, what stuck was that Skype succeeded for two reasons – it made phone calls free, showing incumbents the longest finger of the human hand at a 90-degree angle. The second reason was that it was drop dead simple to use. At least TVP has got that one covered.

Our first look at the Venice Project

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