The BBC first started its trials of its nascent iPlayer service quite a while ago; unfortunately I wasn’t lucky enough to register my interest for the first trial, and so didn’t get onto the list of testers, so I have no knowledge of the first incarnation (and hopefully you’ll forgive me if I don’t make any comparisons between the first and second versions). However, I was quick enough off the mark this time round to register my interest and get accepted onto the trial, so here we are!
The iPlayer system is currently operating as a closed, ’walled garden’ system, with an extra layer of authentication on top of the regular BBC username system, and all beta testers allocated their own login for this walled garden area. The forums are similarly walled off at the moment during the trial, but are a part of the wider BBC messageboards network (my existing BBC login works fine).
When you click on a specific programme, you are presented with a brief synopsis of the programme, how long you have left to download the show and details of what version the programme is (for some programmes there’s a regular version, a version which is signed and/or a programme which is signed on-screen, and you can choose the version you wish to download from a dropdown list).
The site’s not perfect - there’s problems with content appearing on the site but which users are unable to download (error messages being displayed), some content not appearing at all, and some content being incorrectly encoded (incorrect aspect ratios, etc) - but what do you expect, this is a trial! The feedback from the iPlayer team on the messageboards is very promising, and feedback is usually addressed within hours, days at the most - they also occasionally send out emails concerning platform updates or major bugfixes, so they’re obviously taking a proactive approach (something very nice to see).
Accessibility is also something which the BBC is always keen on providing, and the iPlayer site is a good example of this - the default template isn’t entirely screen-reader friendly, but a number of large type, high contrast and simplified HTML versions are available (and a greater degree of accessibility is due to be rolled out from what I understand). The site, like anything, is subject to change or development, but I’m sure they’ll have all the small problems worked out by the time it goes live for the entire general public.
The example to the left shows the Display Options preferences for the web site with the default stylesheet - it’s simple to select another stylesheet and any changes you make are reflected in the realtime preview, so thumbs up to the BBC for that.
When you click to download a programme, the Kontiki download manager zips off and starts to download.
In contrast to the Sky Anytime and 4OD implementations of Kontiki’s download manager, the licenses are (from what I can tell) acquired at the same time as the actual video file, expediting the process of watching the content. Contrary to how I thought the iPlayer license acquisition works, the individual content licenses are obtained when the media file is played for the first time. For some reason, I thought the license might be downloaded alongside the media file (because I once received a license acquisition error at download time when the iPlayer service was having a 'hiccup'), but nope, license acquisition is definitely when the file is first played, bringing it in line with other Kontiki-based "on-demand" offerings from other UK broadcasters. Interesting that WMP doesn't show a popup informing the user of license acquisition (which my WMP is configured to), nor does it prompt for a username and password, implying that the Kontiki player passes along authentication variables when the file is first played. Thanks to my friend Jonathan for the hat-tip.
The iPlayer application downloads from both the BBC’s servers and other peers with the same video files, but - as you can see from the above screenshot - files zip along, maxing out just about any fast connection. My connection at the time of that download was a 10Mb ADSL2+ connection, courtesy of Be* Unlimited (theoretically they can provide up to 24Mb, and some users get that or in that region speed-wise... But, as always, if your BT line is awful quality, you’ll only get as good as the weakest link, something Be* have no control over). I’m currently switching to Virgin Media (nee Telewest) for their 20Mb broadband package, so I expect download speeds to top 2 megabytes per second as soon as we get switched over. I’ll certainly post any updates if things are drastically different.
There’s several steps - and timeframes - for content acquisition:
- After content is posted to the site, you have 7 days to download it.
- Once you download the content, you have 30 days in which to view the content.
- Once you have viewed the content for the first time after downloading it, you have 7 more days in which to watch the content to your satisfaction before it’s automatically deleted from your iPlayer library. You have no control over this, as it’s restriction of the (much-debated, but unfortunately - for the moment - necessary) DRM on all files.
Content itself is encoded in the Windows Media format, as it’s currently one of the only formats (and certainly one of the only mass-used formats, thanks to Windows Media Player) which supports the kind of time-limited DRM the various rights holders require of the BBC. I’m sure that eventually this will change eventually, but the question is where the next solution, which satisfies all requirements for platform agnosticism, will come from! The BBC is obligated by its remit to provide value in its efforts for as many people as possible, and there are many heated discussions about DRM and platform neutrality - in venues like the BBC Backstage mailing list, for example - so I’m unsure as to how long the current situation and implementation will last, given that it doesn’t support Mac users, is a bit patchy on Vista (the download manager has to be run in XP emulation mode), and only supports certain versions of Windows Media Player.
You can view content you’ve downloaded in two ways - via the iPlayer library interface, or directly in Windows Media Player (only on the same machine, currently, though plans for syncing to supported mobile devices is in the pipeline, apparently). The quality of the video files isn’t top notch, and it’s something I’ve whinged about on the iPlayer forums, but again I’m hopeful that as the encoding process is refined and the BBC improve their storage capacity for new content, the bitrate and resolution of the video files will improve.
Watching the videos fullscreen is perfectly doable, but you can still tell it’s a downloaded file (as is evident from this 1:1 portion of a screenshot of the above video file when played back fullscreen):
Jeremy Vine presenting Points of View... Great programme, awful intro music!
The files do come in at respectable filesizes, and I guess there’s already been a lot of wrangling over the quality-versus-filesize issue at the BBC before they even started pushing content out. I hope that they improve the quality though - the bitrate is only ~921kbps (of which the video is ~800kbps and audio makes up the rest)... Which isn’t good enough in my opinion given that by its very nature, the peer-to-peer framework upon which the iPlayer is built is designed to cope with larger files. My hope is that we eventually get several megabit, "DVD-quality" video files, especially as more people watch TV on their PCs (and in my case, am already watching HD content on my PC!)
As a final plus point, the iPlayer software comes with a comprehensive offline help file - something too many application developers regretfully omit in this day and age!
All in all, I’m very impressed with the iPlayer platform, especially considering it’s still very much in beta. Sure, there’s problems (including files which are never actually available to download, entire days’ worth of content which has to be withheld from publishing because of encoding problems, occasional authentication problems, etc)... But these problems are being resolved and further improvements are being made, and I look forward to helping improve the application along with the other testers before it’s finally made available for all license-payers to use and enjoy.
If anybody has any questions, leave them as a comment on this entry and I’ll endeavour to answer them to the best of my abilities. I have no ETA as to when the iPlayer is being made public (probably because it has to officially pass its public value test first), but I can’t imagine it’ll be too soon given that ITV is rolling out streaming of its shows via the web site and both Sky and Channel 4 are increasing their online presence in similar manners. The BBC also has an Archive trial which begins soon... Keep your eyes peeled for that!