India is getting its first taste of affordable entertainment content. With Internet 2.0 in full play, the masses in the BRIC countries are now getting connected online through the mobile and looking beyond the traditional telly to access music and videos. This essentially means computers and mobile phones are rapidly taking over and ruling our personal entertainment space. Despite the challenges of low bandwidth, poor connectivity, congested networks and the mass use of low-end mobiles as opposed to feature-rich smartphones, technology start-ups like Jigsee ensure that consumers across the country can make the best of what they have and mobile entertainment will no longer be out of reach.
Jigsee offers an app for video streaming, currently available on 200 Java-based phones. And the app contains 200,000 minutes of videos â€“ ranging from devotional, cooking and music to education, news, yoga and fashion. In fact, Jigsee's founder Ray Newal calls it a "YouTube for the masses" available on most of the handsets. So, forget the hi-end, expensive smartphones or the iconic Apple devices. Even your most basic feature phone can provide you access to the intriguing world of video fun and mobile infotainment.
It was this proposition â€“ opening up the world of mobile entertainment to a wider segment of the population who could not access it before - which inspired Newal to launch Jigsee. "What people require is content and easy access to that content through the infrastructure currently available to them. And it has to be affordable," he says.
Tackling Content Discovery
Newal comes from a content background, having worked at DoubleClick, as well as Yahoo! and Microsoft. Between 2005 and 2007, he was the VP â€“ content acquisition and business development at Yahoo!, but quit the job to set off on a backpacking trip across India. This is when he realised the mass appetite for content and how it can be delivered to all, even when users don't own the much-coveted smartphones.
"The mission was how to deliver the content to people â€“ it was a discovery issue. There were recommendation engines, but there was a need for a platform that gives access to entertainment on cell phones," says Newal.
Newal sold his home and car to start Jigsee in Canada, which was incorporated in 2008. The funds lasted for two years as he struggled to build the company with the right kind of talent who could solve the problem of content discovery and its subsequent delivery to none-too-fancy mobile phones. After a decade of earning a steady salary and living comfortably, the shift to the start-up culture was a constant reminder of this goal.
The Revnx Acquisition
In 2009, Newal met Areef Reza, a mobile technology expert who had spent over a decade working at Nortel Networks and Research In Motion. Reza was heading his own start-up called Revnx, which focused on wireless access and streaming video content to low-bandwidth mobile phones. The technology was tested in Bangladesh, but was confronting an issue that many start-ups face â€“ how to go about the next growth step. Newal and Reza decided to combine forces and create a platform that would tackle both discovery and access. Jigsee acquired Revnx's technologies, assets and debt in October 2009.
Gordon Jekubik, who had been Newal's peer at Microsoft and went on to become the CFO of the behemoth, also joined Jigsee. As the COO of Jigsee, Jekubik set up the business and grew the organisation, and the app was ready by 2010. Jekubik has since left the company and now he is the managing director of Canadian venture capital fund JBUZZ Capital Inc. However, he is still an equity partner in Jigsee.
The Jigsee App
The app uses five patent-pending technologies related to the strength of wireless networks and data flow. One such technology is the 'Sweet Spot' algorithm; another is the Jigsee Adaptive and Resilient Streaming (JARS) Protocol, which differs from the existing RTS protocol, used in most J2ME phones. RTS does not work well when it comes to low-bandwidth phones. Leveraging these technologies, Jigsee's app will perform even when the network strength reduces. Video streams continue to play without a hitch by buffering the video in the beginning and the app intelligently tweaks the stream for a smooth playback.
It also uses a feature called auto-bookmarking, which allows users to resume video play from where they left off. You need not worry even if the handset battery dies or the network fails entirely. The Jigsee app automatically remembers where the stream has stopped and provides a simple option to resume watching the next time the application is opened. Magic Queue plays the next video automatically and 'On-the-fly Video Quality Maximizer' ensures the highest video quality possible in spite of bandwidth issues. In brief, Jigsee streams play smoothly, non-stop and the system works on any network over 2G (GPRS), 3G, 4G and WiFi.
Change In Business Plan
By January 2010, Jigsee had developed a proof-of-concept prototype and tested it with Hungama Digital Entertainment Ltd, one of the leading providers of content and value-added services for mobiles in India. It was offered as a white-labelled service via operators and Jigsee signed a formal deal with Hungama to supply videos on demand to mobile users.
But in June 2010, there was a roadblock as the company reconsidered its partnership with Hungama. "We have gone through a series of pivots in terms of its evolution," says Newal.
"Hungama focused on the top five per cent of the population and were pushing subscription-based services via operators. We were misaligned with them."
After some 'soul-searching' and revisiting of the original goal (getting content to the masses), the company came up with a new business plan. This time, it was to create a self-owned platform that would offer free content to the masses and use advertising for monetisation. There is no longer any dependency on cellular operators.
According to the new business plan, the Jigsee app has been designed as an advertising platform. "And it's not just a surface solution," affirms Newal. "We are wrapping an ad platform with really good content. We include 60 fields of metadata, which will help in discovery and relating to ads," he details.
The app is currently in beta stage but one can download it from the company's site or from app stores such as Appia, Airtel App Centre, GetJar, Nokia Ovi Store and Tata DoCoMo's app site.
Jigsee has also brought on board Manoj Kaushal, who was the content head at Hungama Digital Media Entertainment and is now planning to ramp up the start-up's content. The company has already tied up with 21 content providers, such as UTV, Khan Academy, Sagar Arts, TED and Spice Digital, to stream their video content to mobile phones. In the next phase, mobile advertising will bring in the revenues.
Video-on-demand for mobile phones is directly offered by video-sharing sites like YouTube and Vuclip. Then there are solution providers like Apalya who offers mobile TV. "But these players are only focused on smart phones," points out Newal.
Another issue is the type of content being offered. "People don't want to watch just news, but that's what Apalya is now offering. In my opinion, viewers want to watch stored videos and clips of their favourite serials," says an industry expert. Compared to Apalya, Jigsee offers recorded video content which is not restricted to news channels, giving it a competitive edge.
However, Jigsee must include other aspects of the video stack, feels Alok Mittal, managing director of Canaan Partners India. "I see a video service as a stack of services â€“ for connectivity, content and user interface. Jigsee offers the connectivity and has tied up with content providers. Now, it has to focus on the UI and refine it further," he adds.
The Move To India
Being located in Ottawa, Canada, was one of the hurdles faced by Jigsee. "It's not typical for a start-up in Canada to build a product for BRIC countries. A lot of VCs did not feel the conviction we had because of the distance that separated us from the target market," recalls Newal. Lack of resources and talent-hunting were other challenges faced by the start-up.
In February this year, Jigsee raised $1.2 million in its series A funding from the Indian Angel Network (IAN) and Sequoia Capital. The funds were used to set up an office in Mumbai and quickly ramp up its team of wireless network engineers to develop the platform. In March, the start-up employed only four people, but the number had rapidly increased and there are now 25 people working in its Mumbai office. Being involved with a global VC such as Sequoia who sets up Indian companies and grows Indian content is helping Jigsee in realising its long-term goals, said Newal.
"India is undoubtedly a great test bed. With 2.5-3 billion people in the emerging markets, it makes for a viable $1 billion addressable market. In terms of device compatibility, content and price point, there are a lot of options, but the timing could not be better. With 3G in play, operators are dropping GPRS prices and introducing daily sachet plans, which will drive users to consume more on their mobiles," notes Newal.
Jigsee faced a delay, though, in executing its plans. In February, the company announced that it would release version 2.0 of the app in April, but the soft-launch happened only in July. "It was about having a level that we were comfortable with â€“ in terms of building the team. It's been a challenge and we haven't been able to do it as quickly as we wanted," explains Newal.
So, What's Next?
Jigsee is now partnering with other players in the ecosystem â€“ handset manufacturers such as Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Micromax, as well as telecom operators. It is also adding more content partners to offer long-form content. Immediate scaling up plans by the company include extending the app support to Android OS-based phones.
The ultimate goal is to offer the app internationally, starting with neighbouring countries in the Indian subcontinent â€“ namely, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. It will then target the Middle East, Brazil and the African nations. The company is also readying the rollout of its monetisation platform.
In five years' time, mobile streaming video will match the viewership of DTH, predicts IAN investor Rehan Yar Khan. However, of the 550-600 million mobile connections in the country, 95 per cent are not smartphone users. And then there are the long-standing issues of poor connectivity due to low bandwidth and network congestion. The country requires technology innovations like that of Jigsee's to catalyse GPRS usage and consumption of mobile content.