ifl-01.thumbSo, I’ve been promising this for a while now - and now it’s here: my review of the BBC’s iPlayer service.


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).


The system works in two parts - a desktop application and web site. The first, a customised Kontiki client - named the BBC iPlayer Library - stores and manages your downloaded programmes, as well as arranging the DRM license authentication for the content you download. The second part, the BBC iPlayer website itself (bbc.co.uk/iplayer) is where you choose what programming you want to download. The web site has a series of menus - organised by programme category, by day (7 days in total from today back to last week) and also alphabetically. Due to compatibility issues with the Kontiki Javascript libraries, you have to use Internet Explorer to actually choose and download content to your iPlayer library. I used Firefox for some of the screenshots as you don't need to use IE just to view the site (so apologies if you get confused by that).


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).

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The iPlayer entry for the "Human Nature" Doctor Who episode

The programme pages themselves have Javascript libraries embedded in each page which, along with specially-crafted links that address the functions within the libraries, send a call to your desktop client containing the programme information, file details and other metadata. The Kontiki application then sets off downloading the programme, popping up both when the download starts and when it finishes.

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).


ifl-14.thumbAccessibility 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.


ifl-22.thumbWhen 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:


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  1. After content is posted to the site, you have 7 days to download it.

  2. Once you download the content, you have 30 days in which to view the content.

  3. 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.


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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):
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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!

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The iPlayer help file entry explaining the necessity for DRM


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!

6 Comments:

  1. Martin Belam said...
    Interesting to hear your views. I have seen the lengthy DRM debate on Backstage, but haven't got to touch the software yet. Glad to see that the accessibility looks good, and also offline help is a bonus. I get driven up the wall with software that just automatically assumes you are online all the time. Somewhat envious of your connection speed as well, it is strictly 31.2Kbps for me in Greece at the moment!
    Christopher said...
    Ah, I remember the days of analogue... I was stuck on 56k for years whilst the rest of my village got cabled, all because our road was the only piece of privately-owned land in the entire village! That was frustrating.

    Transitioning to Virgin Media for their (hugely-traffic-shaped) 20Mb service on the 21st of June (on Friday!), so I'll be interested to see how the P2P download aspect of iPlayer manages to (ab)use the higher available bandwidth.
    Neil said...
    Is the show Doctors available on here? I've been waiting to find out for so long, it's one of very few shows that I actually like on the BBC and it's always on in the afternoons!

    Thanks.
    Christopher said...
    It's not... Yet! The iPlayer only currently has stuff from the past 7 days, no on-demand and no series stacking - but it will be coming soon when it's rolled out.

    I'm not sure about back catalogue and archive stuff - the Archive Trial is currently undergoing a private beta for its public value test, there's only 1,000 items on there (pretty much a sampling of a few things) but I'm not sure if that'll even reach public beta or not.

    For now, no Doctors, only one Doctor (Who?... guess), but I wouldn't write it off.
    johntaylor said...
    Hi, The BBC Iplayer suddenly stopped working for me, I have removed it and the Knttki programme but it still won't load and neither will 4od Now I was wondering if you had any solution for this as it's becoming rather annoying not being able to use either.
    Christopher said...
    There are several reasons why this may have happened, though it sounds like it's a Kontiki problem (if 4OD isn't loading, most likely a common issue with the Kontiki engine powering both clients). Have you tried fully removing the iPlayer software from your PC, using the Kontiki Cleaner ("KCleaner") app to remove all traces of Kontiki software from your machine, and then reinstalling from scratch?

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