...Urgh. As I write this, it's about 7:10am and I've just about (minus the audio drivers, which are proving problematic) finished reinstalling and tweaking my laptop with a fresh install of XP. Its previous lifespan was curbed rather suddenly by a total hard drive failure... Two weeks out of warranty! What a pain. Never mind, this laptop's got a 250Gb hard drive in it now. (250Gb! In a laptop!)

It had set me back a little, as all my Archive Trial drafts and images for this blog were on the broken hard drive - which I've managed to recover most of the data from, thank $deity for the one common S-ATA interface - I plugged the drive straight into my fileserver and ran GetDataBack on it for about 16 solid hours! Loads of clicks of death and horrible noises, and some CRC errors, but I got most of the important data. What have we learnt? ALWAYS keep offsite, physically-separate backups of laptop data... At the very least, a working install ISO with maybe your core apps in. I won't make the same mistake again.

Anyway, I thought I'd just observe that, in keeping with its Christmas Day official release, the iPlayer has been given some official interstitial advertising on the main BBC terrestrial channels, and the whole thing's been given a bit of a facelift:

This smaller, neater window is quite a change from previous incarnations, which looked much more like regular Kontiki-based clients. However, I did prefer the older, all-black interface, it felt a little sleeker. However, the latest version brings with it some features that I wouldn't want to see disappear - so on balance, I'll put up with the white!

When you download content now, the process is a lot more streamlined...

Not only can you now see the more detailed statistics for each download-in-progress, details you could previously only view in the small dialog which sits by the system tray clock, but you can also enable PIN protection, see information about the peer-to-peer technology behind iPlayer, and enable/disable P2P sharing (the same option found by going to Settings and then checking/unchecking the appropriate tickbox).

When the file has finished, you can also see how many days you have left to view the file - and by mousing over the preview image for the programme, it even shows you the expiry date in day/month format. Handy.

When your show's downloaded...

... and after you watch it for the first time:

(Left image shows what you see after you watch a programme for the first time after download.
Right image shows the date/month info you see when you mouseover the programme's preview image.)

Below is the new iPlayer Settings page. No longer sprawled over several tabs, you have one General tab and one Parental Guidance tab. Again, neater, and neat is good. Display Options still has its own section, where you can define Accessibility options such as custom stylesheets for high-vis display or screenreader-friendly compatibility.

Parental Control has been streamlined a bit, and although I don't use it I know that I wouldn't have trouble configuring it.

If you click to view a downloaded programme, by default you get the new and improved (read: redesigned) iPlayer... player:

Whereas before, the window was a smaller, more tall than wide window which had a link to open in your default media player (which will be Windows Media Player), the new iPlayer window is intended to look and function in a similar fashion to the in-page Flash streaming player available for many programmes on the iPlayer web site (P.S. - have you noticed the Spinal Tap homage yet?). I like it, although the visual indicator of the volume level is missing from the latest incarnation (hopefully it'll make a comeback soon). The progress slider could be a little bigger too, I'm sure it was bigger (and easier to grab with your cursor) in the previous version.
Still, the interface as a whole is better for its refresh, and you can forcibly set a preference in the General Options tab to either spawn your programmes in the iPlayer window, or in Windows Media Player proper (the latter of which I prefer to do, as I'm a little obsessive compulsive about having my media play in their proper respective clients, even if a third party app actually uses the original player's render engine to display the video! But yes, I'm a little strange.)

Below is the in-page Flash player. Most people will have to update to the very latest version of Flash to view this content, as (from what I understand) the latest builds of Flash Player support the future ability to include DRM in the broadcasts (if it's not DRMed or locked to streaming from one particular domain already!)
I've not done much packet sniffing to download one of the videos yet, so I couldn't say either way, so all I can say for now is that whilst I thought I had the most recent version of Flash installed on my machine, the web site made me go update it. This is a minor inconvenience, but this solution is, for the moment, the only way for Mac and (most) Linux users to view iPlayer content.

My favourite TV critic's show, playing in its in-page incarnation :)

Have you still not spotted the Spinal Tap homage yet? Here's a clue...

The advantage of having a Flash-based viewing alternative to downloading the Kontiki client is that you can far more easily share programmes with people, and the Flash player offers this via the button right next to the volume mute option.

The iPlayer client employs the same fullscreen method as the legion of other Flash video-based sites, using any available hardware video acceleration to do some nifty smoothing and antialiasing when you go fullscreen, and when you mouse down to the bottom of the screen, you get a thin strip of video controls, also handy for zipping through the programme without having to escape out of fullscreen then go back again.
(and no, thankfully the BBC isn't showing X Factor, I think this clip was from The Most Annoying People of 2007.)

Unfortunately the Flash method is not perfected yet, as the modal options displayed when you click on one of the left-hand-side menus (such as Categories or Last 7 Days), the entire video disappears, although it keeps on playing - and if you click out to close the modal menu, the video displays again at the point it would be if you had kept on watching normally). I'm not sure if this is a browser-specific render issue, but maybe some coding to check whether the Flash window has lost focus (and if so, pause the video, then restarting when you close any menu) would be a nice touch.

(look ma, no video!)

Oh, and the Beeb's decided to rebrand the Radio Player (but not the URLs, yet)... Everything's now under the iPlayer brand, so we are now presented with iPlayer Radio. How very black and pink of them.

So, if you're an iPlayer dabbler, check out the latest incarnation, because it's worth a look (and you may even end up watching something!) The BBC's running trails on its main terrestrial channels at the moment, including one with the Top Gear boys and one with Sir David Attenborough, and their new strapline for the iPlayer is "making the unmissable unmissable."

Personally I can't wait for the iPlayer to come to on-demand cable TV, that'll be way cooler - no chances of triggering STM on your broadband connection that way!

It can't be argued that we've come a long way as a species and as a society without it, but one thing's for sure - we couldn't have advanced this far technologicaly. On Sunday, the humble transistor turns 60, in no small part thanks to three guys: 'William Shockley (1910-1989), John Bardeen (1908-1991) and Walter Brattain (1902-1987). As El Reg also notes, 'it was Bardeen and Brattain who made the first working point-contact transistor on 16 December 1947.'

So, while you're in the pub, enjoying some sports on the plasma TV whilst sipping on a pint brewed to tightly-controlled specifications in a computer-controlled brewery, pause for a moment's thought and say thanks to three of the people who gifted society with one of the most ingenious little inventions in recent history.

For all those who were unlucky enough to miss out on the first Archive trial, tune in later this weekend for a full rundown of the Beeb's latest private trial of their Archive offering.

Update, July 2009: Fon are currently running a promotion where active Foneros (like myself) can 'invite friends' to join Fon and pick up a La Fonera v2.0 for just $/€19.95, instead of the regular $/€49.95. The LFv2 is a great improvement over the LFv1 (which I have) - it has a USB port, allowing for connection of external HDDs and sharing over the LAN, an independent uploader and downloader mechanism (so you can torrent to your external HDD without having the PC on) and it has more ethernet ports on it too.

Oh, and did I mention that because the firmware is opensource, the device is inherently hackable (and that many people have already managed to flash other firmware to it, increasing its functionality yet further?)

If you want an introduction to the La Fonera 2, check out the Fon blog entry with a video from Fon's CTO introducing the device. I have 20 invites to give away to people who want to score the 60% discount on a La Fonera 2 - to request an invite, just send me an email.

I'm a grumpy old grouch, but one email I received today did cheer me up - Fon is offering people who are active Foneros (users who don't make money from people using their wifi, but who can use any other Fon spot worldwide for free) three free Fonera routers! That's free as in beer, no shipping costs or tax or anything, and I just placed my order.

You can't just go on to the site and get them, if you qualify for the offer you'll receive an email from Fon with the promo code in it (which is unique to you) and you enter it in the Fon Shop to apply the offer. Two more clicks and you're done. Shame it's not the Fonera+, I would've liked to have one of those (a subsidised offer promo code would've been even nicer because they're currently around €44, but I expect they'll do an offer similar to my idea later on in 2008).

There are certain terms and conditions; you have to keep the routers online and active once you get them, or if you either already have one or don't see the point in running multiple routers, you're encouraged to give them to other people. I might give one to my parents, and give one to my friend who's just gotten cable but can't afford a wireless router.

Here's what Fon has to say with regards to the terms and conditions of the offer:

Special Offer for three La Foneras for free. (Shipping and Sales tax included)

This Special Offer is valid until December 31, 2007 and limited to 15000 La Fonera Bundles (with three La Foneras) and to users/customers/members of FON that have received their Promotional Code and that also register or are already registered as Foneros. This Offer is limited to one router per user and shipping address. You will not be eligible for this Offer if you have previously purchased a subsidised La Fonera at www.fon.com.

Once FON has confirmation that you have registered as a member of our Community, we will send you the La Fonera Bundle (with three La Foneras) for free including tax and shipping. Once you have received your La Foneras, your will be required to install the La Fonera and maintain it activated within the FON Community. If for any reason you are not able to do so, we ask that you kindly pass the La Fonera onto a friend who wants to share WiFi as a Fonero.

FON will publish your location on the FON maps that highlight the FON Community’s Access Points. Your personal data will be handled in accordance with the FON Privacy and Data Protection Policy that you will accept or have accepted when registering with FON. The FON Privacy and Data Protection Policy complies with the Spanish Organic Act 15/1999 entitled the Personal Data Protection Law and the UK Protection Act 1998, their corresponding regulations and other relevant legislation.

On our website www.fon.com you can find all of the necessary information for installation and registration of your La Fonera.

So, if you have one of these emails sitting in your inbox, what are you waiting for?

Myself and Iain McDonald attended SBES last month, where Tristan Ferne (more details) and James Cridland (more details) made a presentation to the assembled masses in the FutureZone about a couple of prototypes they were working on (with others) in the BBC Radio Labs. One of the concepts, Radio Pop, covered more social interaction with radio listening via online streaming, engaging listeners and drawing them in, enticing them whilst plotting usage versus popularity in a very bubbly, pretty kind of way. Very good, though it's never going to make it to production (at least in the state it was presented to us).

Another, far more interesting concept - and annoyingly, the one they left until last - was all about Olinda. By happy coincidence, "Ó Linda" means "oh, beautiful!" in Portugese. (According to Tristan Ferne, the project was named after an imaginary city in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, and the realisation that Olinda is a real place only came afterwards). Unfortunately, there wasn't a physical, working prototype at SBES, due to external forces beyond their control (read: most likely Schulze & Webb dropped the ball and didn't get it finished in time!), but they had a good raft of imagery and other information, and you can read more about the product (and its design) on the blogs of both James Cridland and the project's designers, Schulze & Webb.

A mockup of Olinda with a modular addon attached (sketched in white). "The drawing is from a little over a week ago, and is based on a model used to investigate certain materials and assembly."
(From S&W blog, with thanks)

In a nutshell, however, Olinda is designed to be an extensible, low cost, futureproof digital radio, with the requisite ease of use and durability. It supports the DAB format out of the box, with further expansion (both functionality and format support) designed to be added in an extensible way. This is the cool part kids, so prepare yourselves: if you want to add wireless functionality (wifi) to the device, to play Internet streams, you buy the wifi snap-on for it. You get it home, you take it out of its packaging and - quite literally - snap it onto the side of the radio. There's no mechanical clips or switches to hold these modules in place; a cleverly-designed case combined with magnets inside both the radio's socket and the snap-on modules hold each modules in place. The only physical connection would be between the radio and the module via a small, common-interface connection, ensuring that any modules will work in any order with the device. This also results in the possibility of daisychaining modules to add functionality... New digital format making waves in the industry, and you want to listen to stations being broadcast in it? Just buy the snap-on module block, attach it to your radio and away you go.

The key factor in this radio's success will be its compatibility and takeup. It has the potential to itself make waves in the hardware market and the consumer market, purely due to its social nature. Features such as the ability to compare your most-listened stations with your friends' favourites over the web, or to see what they're listening to and tune in with one click suddenly become a distinct possibility. Perhaps the most enticing thing about Olinda is the promise that the entire interface, including the API for module designers, will be disclosed in full to the world via an Attribution license, meaning that, as Cridland puts it himself,

The thing I’m most pleased about... [is] the fact that all this hard work is available for any manufacturer to use. For free. As Matt from S&W says…

The BBC should be able to take [the radio] to industry partners, and for those partners to see it as free, ready-made R&D for the next product cycle.

So that’s why I’m proud to say that, when complete, the BBC will put the IPR of Olinda under an attribution license–the equivalent of a BSD or Creative Commons Attribution. If a manufacturer or some person wants to make use of the ideas and design of the device, they’re free to do so without even checking with the BBC, so long as they put the BBC attribution and copyright for the IPR that’s been used on the bottom.

This is all great news. Free, ready-made R&D for manufacturers. And some tremendous content for us. It’s a win-win.

In essence, the BBC is designing the radio with S&W and will bring it to market, perhaps with some basic functionality and a bundled module to increase takeup (a wifi connectivity module would make the most sense). They sell the device, make some money, but most importantly offer up all the previous R&D and base platform as one which can be improved upon by third parties designing their own modular additions to the platform, all of which are guaranteed to be fully interoperable - and the only requirement is that if another company designs a module, they can just go and do it without mandatory prior consultation, provided they thank the BBC and make consumers aware about this.

This also opens up the possibility for some really nifty extensions to the base platform; multiple format support, all kinds of wireless functionality (wifi, including future specs and subsets of the wireless standard such as N spec and MiMo, UWB support, the ability to rebroadcast within the locality of your house on FM (just like the FM senders currently popular with MP3 player owners) or play and repeat a stream to another device over the network, resulting in a network of radios all playing the same music in sychronicity wirelessly - ideal for house parties! From what I understand of this aspect of Olinda, the possibilities are only limited by the limitations of the API and the creativeness of the designers, a far cry from today's insular, closed-design digital radios from Pure, Roberts and the like.

One of the reasons I usually hate buying into new technologies is that you enter into a lifecycle with one device, and then something which can do the job better or in a cooler way comes out - and you're stuck with a lump of a product which feels clunky and unrefined. I know this is a side-effect of the rapid turnover of electrical goods and technology in this day and age, but I hate it. One of the best examples of this is current BluRay/HD-DVD format war, and the (kind of) associated HD war. So, you're selling me this laptop today for £800, but in two months' time it'll be in the bargain basement section of your web site, and in four months made completely obsolete by its successor model and unavailable to buy? Right. You also want me to buy an HDTV which can accept 1080p but only has a physical panel resolution of 1366x768? You want me to buy this HD player which is almost totally proprietary and only supports its own brand of system link, so I can't control all my devices from one remote even though they all have similar implementations of system link and cost more than £1,000? Yeah, erm, I think I'll pass (and I'll hack my PC to play back the latest formats with the addition of a few codecs and play it back on my existing flat panel HD-ready LCD monitor, without having to invest in a whole new device).

This is also why Iain has a mantra about buying new Mac technology: there's only two times of the year when you can safely invest in new Mac hardware, in September and after the latest Stevenote, because then you're guaranteed at least six months of the latest and greatest before something else comes out to usurp it.

Herein lies the beauty of Olinda's design. its lifecycle differs radically from traditional devices; if you can add functionality down the line via a simple modular upgrade even your Granny can manage, then you're onto a winner - a return to longer product lifecycles is long overdue. Can you remember the last CD player you owned? My parents owned a Philips CD player from the early 1990s, and it ran almost flawlessly for the best part of ten years before the laser alignment mechanism began to fail. Our current CD player is a cheap supermarket DVD player, but it looks horrible, the sound quality isn't as good and no doubt it'll fail within the next two years. Any product which is implicitly designed to reduce waste (from units discarded when upgrades are purchased) and is kinder to the environment in terms of raw resources is a laudable thing (and another desirable side-effect).

Another problem the UK has (along with other EU member states, to an extent) is that it's now entrenched in two digital broadcast formats - DAB for radio and MPEG-2 (DVB-T) for TV. These are rapidly ageing and showing their weaknesses, but the problem the industry is facing is that they've reached critical mass with existing deployment of technology, too many people have these first- and second-gen devices in their homes. To just up and change to an entirely new standard is unthinkable, let alone unworkable right now.

A format like DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale, not digital rights/restrictions management) or DAB+ would be a welcome progression given our country's limited available spectrum and the relentlessness with which the existing DAB format has already been marketed, but without some kind of backwards compatibility or simulcast of two formats over a long period of time, no real change is going to come about. However, if any change does come about, all a developer has to do is bring a module to market which offers support for a future format, and people can buy it and extend the lifecycle of their Olinda radio until the next format comes along. Smart idea.

I was thinking about this very issue during the SBES presentation, and at the end I did put this point to James Cridland, asking him whether software-on-chip would be included in the device - that would again solve another problem, because if everyone's using the same set, all that has to be done to add support for a new format is to broadcast out a new firmware for the radio, or offer it as a download which can be flashed to the unit from a computer or directly from the unit using an Internet connection. This would eliminate the problem of changing an entire country's broadcast format, and personally I'd love a radio which could do that. However, I received the stock response about how that kind of functionality could (and most likely would, I assumed) be offered via modular upgrades. Still, it's better than nothing!

The product is still very much in its nascent stages, but I hope that come the start of 2008, Schulze & Webb and the BBC will have physical demo units available to help explain their concept and ideas to the general population, because I really want to get my hands on one! If they ever do a private alpha or beta, they're more than welcome to send me a preview unit for feedback and bug testing! I feel I've barely scratched the surface of this device with regards to its possible functionality, the social element is also going to factor into this radio in a big way and frankly that's only a good thing.

Put me down on the waiting list for a production unit, too. ;)


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