A few weeks back, I started to listen to one of my favourite podcasts – BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show, only to be greeted with:
“We’re sorry that The Now Show podcast isn’t available for this series. The podcast was part of a trial, which has now come to an end; however you can still listen to the programme for seven days after broadcast, via the Radio 4 website.”
The clip then continued by advertising other BBC Radio 4 podcasts – obviously not “part of a trial which has now come to an end”. This annoys me tremendously – the BBC is a fine broadcaster but as as it dumbs down its main news programmes and airs more and more tabloid TV (leave that to ITV please), I’m not sure that my license fee is being well spent (that’s how the BBC is funded – from the sale of it’s programmes, and from a mandatory annual fee for all UK households and businesses with a device that’s capable of receiving a TV signal – even if it only receives subscription services like satellite or cable TV). You see, the BBC has spent millions developing a new service called iPlayer (it’s a pity they couldn’t have spent a few more pounds registering the iplayer.com domain) which will allow registered users (as long as they have a UK-registered IP address) to download programmes from the Internet. On the face of it, that sounds good, except that it’s been bogged down by DRM and that’s limited the availability of the service.
A few months back, Microsoft UK’s James O’Neill and I were engaged in an online (and face-to-face) debate about the need (or not) for digital rights management (DRM). James’ argument is that content providers have a right to protect their copyrighted material, that Windows Media codecs are available or Mac users and that Linux users would never allow a Microsoft product (i.e. a Linux port of Windows Media Player) on their system. My argument is that piracy would be insignificant if an easy to use digital media system could be created which works regardless of the device and operating system and with media at a price for which people would be happy to pay without a moment’s thought – that Microsoft Windows Media, Apple FairPlay and competing technologies should be made to work together – just as Mark James proposes in his call for open standards in digital rights management. Instead, the BBC (following the path set by a rival broadcaster, Channel 4) have provided a service which will only work on a subset of Windows PCs.
“We have chosen initially not to market or publish widely the availability of the service as we wanted to see what the initial demand would be – and interest so far has been extremely strong.”
Hmm… I read a press release announcing that the service would be launched on 27th July 2007 (which was subsequently picked up by many newspapers and websites) – I think that is both marketing and publishing the availability of the service. So what’s all this beta nonsense about then? It seems that the BBC’s Press Office is not talking to the BBC’s iPlayer people…
Once I set up a Windows XP PC and got my login details for the iPlayer service (after a wait of several hours… suggesting a level of manual intervention in the process), I found that they didn’t do much for me. The BBC’s own advice is to save the iPlayer login on the computer (if I’ve saved my login details in a cookie, what’s the point in having a login?) and then before I could download any content I had to register for a separate bbc.co.uk account (which seems to require more personal details than I would like to give away). At least that was an immediate process (even if the first few usernames I tried were taken) and I was finally able to download my programme.
Download speeds were good (in the region of 2Mbps), although the reference to the number of sources from which I was downloading alerted me to that fact that this is a peer-to-peer service (the BBC uses VeriSign’s Kontiki delivery management system) – in which case am I giving up some of my bandwidth for the BBC to distribute its content to others? (Oh the irony of a DRM-protected service using P2P for distribution!) More to the point, what effect will that have on my bandwidth usage if I’m limited by my ISP, or if they implement network controls to limit access to the service?
The BBC website had given me the impression (obviously misguided) that programmes would be available for download up to 7 days after broadcast and then to view for a further 30 days. Apparently that’s not so, as the 30 day clock seems to start ticking at broadcast time (not download time), so my programme actually had 23 days left for me to watch it. Furthermore, it seems that once I start to watch a programme I only have 7 days to watch it before it expires. Those timescales seem pretty tight (there are no such limits with other time shifting technologies, whether I use a simple video cassette recorder or something more complex) and it’s this inflexibility that makes me so critical of DRM.
The content itself is pretty good quality – at least the episode of Click that I used to test the service (not to be confused with the streamed version available from the BBC website) looked fine in full screen mode on a standard 1024×768 laptop display although, somewhat annoyingly, a BBC News 24 ticker was visible on the bottom of the screen throughout the programme (that shouldn’t be a problem for most programmes). Also, despite advertising itself as a 30-minute programme, this particular episode turned out to be the short (just under 12 minute) version. Actually, once you find a PC that meets the iPlayer specifications, the service is pretty good. I just think that the BBC should cast it’s net a little further and include Macintosh and Linux users in its online audience.