The BBC’s iPlayer finally catches up

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

The BBC’s iPlayer TV and radio catch up service is great in many ways but it only runs on XP and has a ridiculously short period before the DRM kicks in and snatches a programme away from your computer. Now things are taking a step forward and, over the Christmas period, I’ve been using a beta of the BBC’s new cross-platform iPlayer Desktop.

No longer limiting itself to a single platform and an old version of Windows, the BBC has dropped Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM in favour of an Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) application and H.264. For those who are not familiar with this technology:

  • H.264 is a video encoding algorithm intended to providing good video quality at substantially lower bit rates than previous standards and is used by Apple iTunes, YouTube and other prominent content distribution platforms.
  • AIR is Adobe’s platform for writing rich Internet applications that can run on the desktop. Basically, AIR is the opposite to Microsoft Silverlight (which takes the .NET Framework into a browser) and it can bring Flash, Flex, HTML or AJAX to the desktop, further blurring the lines between web and desktop applications.

Because AIR is supported on so many platforms, the new iPlayer system requirements list Linux (Fedora Core 8, Ubuntu 7.10, Open Suse 10.3); Mac (Intel only); Windows XP and Windows Vista as supported operating systems. Although they are not listed in the system requirements, it should also run on other platforms that are not listed – for example other Linux distributions and Windows 7.

The application itself seems straightforward enough – if you’ve seen the previous iPlayer Download Manager then the new iPlayer Desktop will be instantly familiar. As should be expected with a beta application though, there are still some issues to iron out: all three machines that I installed the application on set the allocated hard disk space to something ridiculously small; but, critically, if your computer is connected to a low-resolution screen (say, on a netbook, or a standard definition television), then parts of the interface (like the tabs to switch between downloads, now playing and settings) are not accessible – as shown in the screen shot below (a VNC connection to the Mac Mini that I have hooked up to my old Sony TV):

iPlayer Desktop too big for the display

Sadly I’m not aware of any changes to the content restrictions that mean programmes are only available for a (very) limited number of days after broadcast (I imagine that, just as the Windows Media DRM was easily circumvented, the DRM on this new platform will be cracked too). But there is some light at the end of the tunnel – the AIR-based system may just be a stepping stone in the development of the BBC’s content delivery platform – at Microsoft’s 2008 Professional Developers’ Conference, the Head of Online Media for BBC iPlayer, Anthony Rhodes, spoke of moving from an Internet catchup (broadcast 1.0) service to a model where the Internet replaces television (broadcast 2.0) using Live Mesh and a local Silverlight application to share content between users and across devices.

So, how can you get the new iPlayer Desktop? Simply agree to be a BBC iPlayer Labs tester and then download a programme from the iPlayer website. At this point you should be prompted to install the iPlayer Desktop (and Adobe AIR) – just follow the prompts and within a few minutes you should be in business.

After testing the new platform on my systems over Christmas, the iPlayer Desktop seems like a major step forward to me. If you run Linux, Mac OS X, or a modern version of Windows (and if you have a UK-based IP address), then it’s definitely worth a look.

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