BBC iPlayer: seems to work well on Windows XP but what about the rest of us?

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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 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.

I recently saw a trailer for a BBC series called Mountain which was advertised as “coming soon” but I missed the first couple of episodes. Realising this, I thought that this would be an opportunity to try out the iPlayer service but if I’m going to give up the comfort of my living room to watch TV on the computer, I want to do it with my computer that’s hooked up to a decent display – that will be the Mac then. Not with iPlayer – it’s Windows only (so much for the accessibility which BBC services should maintain). Not to worry, I have a decent Windows PC too… oops, that runs Vista… iPlayer only works with Windows XP, Windows Media Player 10 and Internet Explorer 6 (or later) with JavaScript, ActiveX and cookies enabled. Now, looking at the statistics for this site, Windows XP users only account for about 60% of my visitors (even if they prefer to use another browser, they will have IE6 installed). Sure, my readers are highly technical (and hence more likely to try something other than the norm) but so will those who are interested in watching TV across the Internet – at least in 2007 (I expect things to change over the next couple of years) – so the BBC has instantly excluded 40% of it’s potential audience (even more if their IP addresses don’t appear to be served from the UK). Furthermore, for a service that was supposed to have launched a fortnight ago, it’s still carrying a beta label and signup is a painfully slow process. In fact a BBC representative wrote on an iPlayer support forum:

“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 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.

BBC iPlayer - downloading

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. BBC iPlayer - expiry 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.

5 thoughts on “BBC iPlayer: seems to work well on Windows XP but what about the rest of us?

  1. The BBC’s iPlayer system is a fine example of what happens when you let people with no technical ability make decisions that affect those of us more knowledgeable, or more vested in the technology.

    I haven’t tried the iPlayer and I won’t. I’m not interested in limiting my choices with DRM and 30 days is still their schedule, not mine. How dare they? I’ve already paid for the production of the shows, through the ever-increasing TV Licence fee, I can video the broadcasts if I like, but I can’t keep a download on my hard drive for more than 30 days because it’ll eat into the profits from sales of DVDs and videos.

    Now, I’ll admit that I’d rather watch the BBC programming than the increasing tabloid scare-mongering of Sky and ITV, but it isn’t so good that I should have to pay for it twice.

    Once again, the irony is that these over-exuberant lockdown tactics are what drives usually honest consumers down the DRM-free but illegal P2P route.

    Hopefully the BBC will eventually learn the lesson that even record companies are getting: DRM doesn’t work. Consumers don’t want it and will go elsewhere. DRM can be broken, circumnavigated or ignored. There’s no DRM in the shows available as torrents.

    As Licence Fee payers, most people are going to assume it’s more-or-less legal to download content they’ve already paid for using these services. I think it should be.

  2. Alex,
    You’re 100% correct that the BBC have got it wrong by wrapping iPlayer around a DRM system.

    Closed DRM systems (of whatever flavour) are anti-consumer. I’d prefer content providers to drop DRM altogether but feel that sticking my head in the sand and ignoring services like iPlayer probably won’t work either (don’t think for one moment that I didn’t at least look for the Mountain series on a torrent site before going through the hassle of setting up iPlayer).

    If we have to suffer DRM (I personally don’t believe that it is necessary) then it should be an open system that works regardless of media player, operating system and device but I’m also heartened that Universal Music are now trialling the sale of DRM-free versions of their music – although not via the iTunes store (who cares, if it’s DRM free then I can transfer it to the player of my choice!). I truly hope that Universal’s experiment works and that all the major content providers follow suit.

    Maybe then the iPlayer service will be exposed as the costly waste of licence-payer’s money that it is – especially once major ISPs (e.g. BT, TalkTalk, and Tiscali) limit user access in order to avoid the additional load on their networks caused by the P2P distribution system (and that will just be the thin edge of the wedge – we can kiss goodbye to net neutrality once that happens). In the meantime, once you get it working, iPlayer seems to work ok… it’s just a nuisance to even get that far.


  3. I am from Ireland but have lived in Cardiff since 1960.

    I regularly watch/ listen to TV/radio programmes in my native English as well as in my hard-learned Irish Gaelic and Welsh. I have also recently begun to watch Scottish Gaelic stuff on BBC Alba.

    After a prolonged period of gestation that puzzling body gave birth to its lacklustre iPlayer and offered it to us with all the cold charity of Ebenezer Scrooge on a bad day. Not only do many fine programmes not even get to iPlayer but those that do tend to be available for just about a week – and only in the UK, of course.

    If one chooses to use the iPlayer ‘download’ the file dies in 30 days if left unplayed and within 7 days of first play! A Hobson’s choice if ever there was one.

    My sorrow is that whereas I can both watch and record (to RealPlayer) stuff in English and/or Irish Gaelic on RTE ( for up to a year after broadcast and in Welsh on S4C ( for up to 35 days after broadcast no such quarter is given by the BBC.

    Last Satueday I came by happy accident on the last programme in a remarkable series ( that began in mid November. ‘Ã’ran Na Mnà‘ (‘The Song of the Woman’) looked at the history of women in terms of their poems and their songs. The last programme is the only one still accessible on iPlayer. Completely entranced I have watched and listened threed or four times every day, knowing that in just three more days it will be out of all sight and hearing for good.

    On RTE the entire series would stiil be accessible; on S4C all but the first two would be available.

    Just why did the BBC – a broadcaster of some of the best stuff around – decide to invent its own squeaky and inefficient wheel? Even the Flintstones would have done better!

  4. Patrick – I’m 100% in agreement with you – even the new iPlayer Desktop beta is limited by the same availability and content restrictions – and the BBC blames it on the restrictions imposed by content producers (in which case, why don’t RTE and S4C have the same issues?).

    The playback limits can be overcome by removing the DRM but as far as I know there is nothing we can do about the inability to download anything older than 7 days (I’ve missed many BBC podcasts this way when iTunes has stopped downloading them for me because it’s decided I haven’t listened to the last few when I’m really just a bit behind on my listening!)

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