Tea London have been closely watching the BBC’s development of the iPlayer service since its Beta release. The iPlayer is the BBC’s on demand service which allows UK Internet users to view and download radio and television programmes broadcast the past 7 days. Whilst people may not be rushing to view television on their home computers, TEA London is of the opinion that ‘on-demand’ television is playing an increasingly more prominent role in shaping our viewing habits. The iPlayer, PVR’s (like Sky+), content aggregators and other on-demand services will render traditional TV viewing habits, and the constraints that go with it, redundant in the near future.

What we are seeing in the iPlayer is not a gimmick, or an nice add-on to the BBC web site, it is the future here today. The days of you endlessly flicking through several hundred cable, satellite and Freeview channels only to find that there is nothing on at all that you would like to watch can be a thing of the past. It probably already is for those of you who make use of a PVR, like Sky+, or even through one of the countless FreeView PVR’s that are on the market – which have prices that are continually tumbling.

In its current state, the BBC iPlayer is a stable, well laid-out service which is available to anyone in the UK with a computer, web browser and a fast internet connection, the iPlayer service is also available through a other on-demand services like BT Vision – which delivers video through a TV set-top box rather than through a computer.

The BBC have been continually improving the iPlayer since its first release, in fact the latest improvements have appeared this very week – making the iPlayer experience all the more pleasant, leading us to say that this is perhaps one of the best, well organised and pleasant on-demand services available in the world today. This pleasant experience was not always there, in fact the iPlayer had a shakey start and was surrounding in political, commercial and technical controversy before it was even released to the general public.

Controversy

The iPlayer was initially only released to a closed section of the public, as well as the the technology press for beta testing (Beta testing is where an application or software based service is nearing its final release, and it is tested by a large, often voluntary, representative audience the product is aimed at).

Journalists were very quick to savage the iPlayer shortly after its release, and although Tea London were not able to use it on the first day of its release, we experienced more than our fair share of bugs in the service, some of which I will discuss these later in this article.

However there were two other major controversies surrounding the iPlayer service, the first the issue that the Beta release show that the iPlayer service would only work on Windows machines. This has wide reaching implications. The BBC is is seen as a public broadcaster, and therefore has an obligation to make the iPlayer available to everyone, regardless of the operating system people use on their computer. The BBC opted to but into a media delivery system that was already in use by other broadcasters, in fact the very first releases of the iPlayer had an uncanny resemblance to Channel 4’s 4oD service. It was clear the BBC selected a product that ticked most of the boxes, and would require less development time, making it both cheaper for the BBC and would enable them to get the service launched in a shorter period of time. The problem was this choice automatically excluded at least 12% of the computer users in the UK, which would be OK for a commercial broadcaster to do, as they can decision based solely on the commercial merits of a delivery system, but the BBC have to cater for the public, all of the public.

The second major controversy was the outcry from the UK’s biggest Internet Service Providers that the iPlayer would have a potentially detrimental effect on the UK’s Internet bandwidth. The delivery of video content does require more a lot more bandwidth than usual – far more than music, internet radio and ordinary web browsing does. In fact the better the quality of the video, the more bandwidth would be required. The video quality delivered by the iPlayer and other on-demand services is perfectly adequate, but is no where near the quality of DVD video, let alone High Definition video (HD). In the future all service of this nature will bump up the quality of the video as and when it becomes technically feasible to do so – and this means that the UK’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will have to invest heavily in their infrastructure to meet with future demand.

There will be an ever increasing need for more bandwidth in the UK, and sadly the UK is already lagging behind many countries in terms of the average speed of domestic broadband services. If anything, the UK’s bandwidth requirements will continue to increase as more and more people use the internet, and as existing users of the Internet begin to use the Internet in an ever increasing fashion for entertainment purposes. Truth be told, that the although iPlayer may have an impact on bandwidth utilisation in the UK the ISP’s need to catch up with demand, because they quite simply are not in the luxurious position to maintain demand – they fell behind a long time ago, right about the time when broadband became available to 97% of the UK’s population and the monthly costs on the average line fell to less than £20. This situation was exacerbated when a string of companies starting offering ‘free’ broadband to the public, which loads of the public signed up in their droves. Bottom line is most ISPs in their greed to capture as many subscribers has possible, have done pitifully little to ensure that they have the capacity to keep up with demand – the demand for which they are directly responsible for creating, and trying to control by putting download limits on the most basic broadband accounts.

The BBC had to gain approval from Ofcom before the service could be unleashed on the public , they had to assess if a service of this nature would be anti-competitive, and also if this fell within the remit of the nation’s public broadcaster. During this review it was not the BBC’s peers who voiced any anti-competitive concerns, it was the was the UK’s ISPs, some of who are owned by the largest telecommunications companies in the world.

In our opinion the BBC had to do this and if they didn’t they would be as good as dead from a competitive point of view. Some people may argue that the public broadcaster, the recipient of our annual TV license fees does not need to be competitive. But with the current government hellbent on destroying the public broadcaster for doing it job, by reporting unbiased news on things like the Iraq war, they have to run themselves more and more like a business. In fact the BBC’s sales of programmes overseas is an important side to the BBC’s revenue, which helps plug the huge financial hole that the government seems to be wanting to increase.

The iPlayer can and will eventually be available for use to people outside of the UK, however it will have to be a charged-for-service, but at last the world will be able to access the quality BBC programmes that we often take for granted here in the UK. This means more money for the BBC, more money for the UK economy, and more importantly Aunty can fight another day in producing some of the best television in the world today.

The beta testing phase and its bugs

As mentioned earlier in this article, we were fortunate enough to take part in the Beta testing of the iPlayer. TEA London is no stranger to Beta testing, and to be honest we were expecting bugs, that is why software goes into testing in the first place – but we were not expecting it to be a painful experience before we even started using the service…

The registration process was confusing. You had to in effect register twice to get the iPlayer downloaded and installed. Once the first release of the iPlayer was installed, we rapidly found that this software was buggy and installed a peer-to-peer technology on our computer. For those of you who who aren’t familiar with the term peer-to-peer, what this means is this software would be ‘sharing’ anything I chose to download, and would not only potentially hog my bandwidth in the process, but would also slow my machine down in the process as the service runs ‘silently’ in the background.

The problem was this peer-to-peer technology, which is a commercial peer-to-peer application called Kontiki, is it has a bug that cause it to hog the CPU of a workstation whenever a new programme was downloaded. This CPU hog apparently was only present in on certain computer processors – problem was that most of the processor in use by the general public where exactly the type of processor this bug in Kontiki would affect.

We were forced to use the iPlayer on a separate machine to download programmes, this CPU hog caused our computer to slow down to a crawl when trying to do the most basic of functions on the computer. It was impossible to have the iPlayer downloading content as well as perform normal basic computer tasks. This was obviously not a good thing, as what computer user would willingly install software that renders their computer virtually useless to gain access to a few TV programmes, when the more than likely had more important things to do at the same time.

The user experience was a strange affair. You couldn’t visit the iPlayer web site using a web browser other than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. TEA London favour the use of Mozilla Firefox as a web browser, so this was an annoyance that also pointed to the service’s sole reliance on Microsoft Windows and other Microsoft technologies.

The second annoyance was that all programmes on offer on the beta version of iPlayer was available for download only. What this meant was you had to download the programme first before you could watch it. This is meant that the service was not actually true on-demand service, rather it was a demand-and-wait service. The download speed on the programmes varied, sometimes a programme came down in less time that it would take to watch, in other cases it would take as long as 20 hours to get something downloaded.

The third annoyance was how the BBC chose to organise the content on the iPlayer web site. Programmes were published after an inconsistent period of time, and they were organised in a haphazard fashion – you really had to dig around the web site sometimes to find a particular programme. After you have trawled through their web site, found what you want and issued the command to download it – it would sometimes just would refuse to download the programme – and you had to revisit the web site to try again later.

The biggest annoyance comes back to the original problem highlighted, and that was one of compatibility – if you did not have Windows Media player installed (and updated to the latest version), you would be unable to play anything you had downloaded. The downloaded content would be have a protective wrapper around it called DRM.

DRM is an ongoing annoyance for the law abiding public, where broadcasters and the entertainment industry (aka Hollywood and the music industry) want to protect copy protection on downloaded material. So before I can view any of these downloaded programmes the computer would have to go and fetch a license from the BBC first which would then give me the right to view what I have downloaded, and then time bomb the content into become unviewable after 7 days of first viewing the programme. Whilst I can understand the need to protect the intellectual rights of media, why would you design a service where you have to waste your bandwidth downloading something, only for it to be rendered useless after a period of time.

If you record a TV programme using a video machine, PVR or DVD recorder, you can keep the recorded programme for life, and watch it whenever you want – most of the population are already capable of doing this, a significant proportion do record TV on a regular basis. I know of one couple who are in their late 60’s who have a his and hers PVR, yes that’s right, they have one each. The can record two programmes each at a time, as well as watch another at the same time. So in one home it is possible for 4 TV programmes to be recorded at the same time – another two can be viewed whilst these 4 programmes are being recorded, but most importantly they can view and review the recorded programmes whenever they want to. They are not forced to watch it within 30 days of recording and the recording doesn’t render itself useless after it has been viewed for the first time.

The end of the Beta Testing – The BEEB gets round to making the iPlayer work

From the moans above you must be thinking that the iPlayer is load of rubbish and is not worth bothering with, and you would be wrong. You see at the last minute, a day or two before the Beta testing ended and the iPlayer was released to the UK public the iPlayer web site took on a radically different look and feel, and also rendered the Kontiki delivery system redundant.

For the first time all of the TV programmes were organised sensibly and it is now easy to find that particular BBC programme you may be looking for in hurry. The second and most significant change is that you can now stream a programme directly from their web site. Streaming video is where you can watch video immediately without having to download the video content first. This streaming option was the BBC’s way of making the iPlayer accessible to everyone, and not only Windows users. It is now possible for Apple and Linux users to visit the iPlayer web site., using a web browser other than Internet Explorer, and within a few clicks they can be watching that missed TV programme.

Windows users still have the option to install the Kontiki deliver system on their machine, which is necessary if you do want to download rather than stream programmes, and the advantages to this is you will be able to keep the programme longer (for 30 days, where the streams are only available for 7 days), and you do not need an internet connection to view the programmes once they have been downloaded, but to be honest why wait?

I can now use my trusted and preferred Mozilla Firefox to visit the iPlayer web site., find the programme I missed a couple of days ago, and get watching it in no time flat – and this is exactly the way an on-demand service is meant to be, no waiting, nothing complicated, instant gratification.

So how does the iPlayer size up to the competition? Well recent news indicates that the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV are all working jointly on developing the on-demand service of the future – and I suspect it will be a continuation of the development the Kontiki delivery system (all 3 broadcasters use this technology and have invested heavily in it), so it is not really all that different technologically.

The Channel 4 4oD service requires that you to install its software first and it will only work on Windows, whereas the iPlayer doesn’t have either of these requirements (although if it weren’t for the initial controversy, the iPlayer could very well be in the same boat).

The 4oD service has a great deal more content on offer, and you have the choice to either download or stream the content, so it is not really different on that score, but and here in lies the rub, all content has advertising, which you have to let play (you can’t skip or fast forward) before you can view, pause, rewind and fast forward your 4oD programme.

Channel 4 also sell video content through the 4oD service, and once again that nasty DRM feature comes into play to ensure that you can’t copy the paid-for download – and it too will have a time-bomb.

Despite these annoyances, the 4oD service is still well worth taking a look at – it is more refined than the initial releases of the iPlayer, which is built on exactly the same technology, and there is loads more content available ready to view on demand.

If you do find that the iPlayer and 4oD services are the innovation we think it is, you may also want into looking into other interesting video streaming services like Veoh, Divx Stage 6 and Azureus Vuze.

To access the iPlayer service go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer