Joost: It could have been a contender, or not

It was supposed to kill YouTube, and now it's finally dead, as some of its assets get sold off in what's likely a total fire sale.
Written by Caroline McCarthy, Contributor on

If you stepped in late, it sounds awfully dull.

An announcement Tuesday tells us all that "certain assets" of a "white-label" online video service called Joost have been acquired by Adconion Media, which calls itself "the largest independent global audience and content network". The acquisition "will be able to provide advertisers, content owners, and Web site publishers with an end-to-end global video platform and cross-channel video and display ad-serving solution," according to a statement from Adconion CEO Tyler Moebius. Financial terms were not disclosed. Yawn.

But really, it's an exceptionally anticlimactic ending for Joost, a company so secretive and hyped that it was once known, James Bond-like, as "The Venice Project", and which was supposed to kill YouTube and that dastardly Cold War villain known as your cable company. It was a scrappy start-up with roots in lawlessness--founders Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom had built onetime file-sharing hub Kazaa--but major street cred, too, as they'd also founded Skype and sold it to eBay. There were impressive backers, too, including CBS (which owns CNET).

What went wrong?

Well, there was a big issue with Joost's downloadable peer-to-peer app. By the time it was released, Web-based video was advanced enough so that a required download was a barrier to entry, not a technical leg up. Some of the big-name content partners seemed to be putting in a halfhearted effort with Joost, offering up reruns and esoteric programs instead of the new programming that people actually wanted to watch.

But perhaps what really doomed Joost was something that was itself supposed to be a flop: When NBC Universal and News Corp. announced their plans to create an online video hub that would rival YouTube and address the rampant issue of piracy, it was referred to disparagingly as "Clown Co." We all know how that one turned out. The finished product, Hulu, was extremely well-received and continues to expand its video library.

There was, briefly, a time when it looked like there was a slight chance that things might turn up for Joost. It did, after all, beat most of its competitors to the release of an iPhone app, and a focus on niche content like Japanese anime seemed like a viable business choice as Hulu increasingly placed an emphasis on the 'mainstreamiest of the mainstream'. Unfortunately, that didn't work either.

There was "a major retrenchment" as Joost reined in its lofty plans. Then it switched business models altogether to the far less glamorous "white-label video solutions" modus operandi.

And then the management debacles became evident. CEO Mike Volpi resigned and then was ousted by shareholders from his role as chairman. Oh, and then the company sued him. Nasty.

Sometimes hype plays out well. Sometimes it just doesn't, and Joost was one of those cases. In spite of the founders' prior successes, truckloads of venture capital dollars, and a few early and impressive content deals, it flopped. The end. Now, per Tuesday's release, it'll be "(adding) many dimensions to Adconion's existing video services and further will solidify its position in the online video and content syndication market".

That's a pretty nice way to put it.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

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