Sugih Jamin, an associate professor of computer science, is trying to redefine television-streaming technology. Jamin hopes that his small Ann Arbor-based company Zattoo will be the first to popularize live television on the Internet in the United States.
Zattoo has been available in parts of Europe since Jamin launched the company in 2005 and aims to reach the United States next year. So far Zattoo has roughly 1.2 million users, most of them in Switzerland.
Jamin has expanded the project from a student’s doctoral dissertation to a company with 22 employees in Ann Arbor and five overseas. All but two of the employees in the United States are University of Michigan graduates.
Zattoo uses a peer-to-peer file-sharing system similar to BitTorrent, a popular protocol used to exchange music, episodes of television shows and films. Jamin said the technology streams television from satellites to users’ computers and then between computers “like a mesh.” The technology is well-adapted to streaming live television because it’s able to broadcast with a much shorter delay than comparable programs, Jamin said.
Rackham Graduate School student Roy Arsan, who studies Internet media networking, said programs like Zattoo should provide faster service than traditional video sites like YouTube.com.
“YouTube just has a server and a client, as opposed to a peer-to-peer system,” Arsan said. “(Zattoo) should be faster because you’re distributing between all the peers.”
According to the program’s website, Zattoo becomes 10 times as efficient as current live-broadcasting technology when thousands of users are logged on. Its boosters also claim it switches from channel to channel faster than comparable programs.
Zattoo plays short advertising clips while the programs are being loaded. The clips often contain hyperlinks to advertisers’ websites.
Piracy is not a concern because Zattoo’s technology prevents recording of its programming, according to the company’s website.
Jamin is optimistic that broadcasters will be eager to contract with the company to reach young, tech-savvy consumers.
“The market is wide open for streaming media,” said School of Information Prof. Thomas Finholt, director of the Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work. But Finholt said he was skeptical about how successful Zattoo will be when it launches in the U.S. He thinks software compatible with portable media players would be more likely to attract users.
While it has been more difficult for the company to negotiate with American broadcasters than European companies, Jamin said that the company is working to carry as many channels as possible when Zattoo launches in the United States.
“We’d like to carry all the main channels, but which channels we actually get is still uncertain,” he said.
The project that became Zattoo began in 2000 as the doctoral dissertation of Wenjie Wang, who was one of Jamin’s students at the time and is now the chief architect of the company.
While not designed to be marketable, the software immediately lent itself to broad commercial use.
“We were (initially) using the program for distributing live conferences on the Internet,” said Jamin, “I got phone calls from people who wanted to use it. I figured if we were going to do it, we might as well do it right.”