Is Silverlight the problem with ITV Player? Microsoft, you have a problem.

I sat down last night to watch a programme on ITV’s catch-up service, using the Silverlight-based ITV Player. It was watchable, but not too good. Now and again the stream would pause for buffering, and I saw the Silverlight busy icon for a while. Quality is also an issue. Sometimes it is great; sometimes it is horribly pixelated.

I took a look at the ITV forums. It seems to be a common problem. The Best of ITV section is dominated by complaints. Some are from an aggrieved minority running Linux or PowerPC Macs; but there are plenty of others. My experience is relatively good; other issues include broadcasts that only play the ads; or codec issues; or streams failing completely half way through a programme. Here’s a sample:

Believe me guys even if you had Windows OS the player still wouldn’t work its completely rubbish; 6 times i’ve tried to watch Britains Got Talent and it either vanishes, or skips etc.
Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish! BBC iPlayer is excellent compared to this, i’m quite disappointed!

Readers of this blog will know that I have nothing against Silverlight, though my interest is more in the application development side than video streaming. Still, the impact of one on the other should not be discounted. You can guess what the pundits in the ITV forum are calling for. It’s Adobe Flash, because they have seen it working well for the BBC and elsewhere.

Now transition to the development team as they put forward the question of whether to use Flash or Silverlight for their upcoming RIA (Rich Internet Application) project. If the exec responsible struggled to watch ITV player the night before, thanks as far as she can tell to the Silverlight plug-in, that becomes a factor in the outcome.

I understand why people blame Silverlight for these problems; but I realise that this may be wrong, cross-platform issues aside. Maybe ITV has inadequate servers; or there is some other technical issue, and Silverlight is innocent.

If you know the answer to this, please let me know or comment below.

Microsoft must realise, though, that this is the most visible use of Silverlight for many UK folk. Some may also remember how BBC iPlayer transformed its reputation when it moved from using primarily Microsoft technology – though not Silverlight, and made worse by poor peer-to-peer client software – to Adobe’s Flash platform. I suggest that Redmond’s finest give it some attention; though who knows, it may be too late.

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17 comments to Is Silverlight the problem with ITV Player? Microsoft, you have a problem.

  • I completely agree. I’ve tried streaming itv programmes and although it’s been ok generally, there have been problems occasionally. That’s even when I use it when I think less people are on the net to try and increase bandwidth a bit.

    It’s a shame ofCom ruled against the multi-channel player (headed up by the guy who ran iPlayer for a bit). Giving us, the viewing public, the opportunity to choose channels as well as programmes would have been a good thing, but I guess it’s another industry that doesn’t “get” the internet.

    I wonder how other channels that use silverlight compare? Aren’t there some American ones (NBC?) that use it? france2 also use it, though they don’t stream whole programmes, just snippets.

  • Craig

    Silverlight was used for the Olympics in the US and by all reports it worked well. It will also be used by the Winter Olympics this year. I think most problems are implementation issues (bugs) by the developers at ITV. I think one problem is there are a lot more developers who are experienced with Flash compared to Silverlight meaning generally higher quality code.

  • chris

    @greg:
    I don’t think that you’re right. There are a lot more C# developer’s than Action Script developers.
    And there are a lot more tools for checking code quality for C# than for Action Script.

  • @chris: I’m a Flex/Flash developer and people like myself code in Eclipse. We have code completion, unit tests, source control, ant and arguably a better designer/developer workflow (how many designers do you know that actually design in Expression rather than Illustrator?).

    Plus, ‘tools for checking code quality’ won’t help you if you’re a bad coder.

    Maybe the problem is that Flash developers understand how to create a compelling user experience and C# devs still have to learn that part? Code itself is only half the solution.

  • tim

    Maybe the problem is that Flash developers understand how to create a compelling user experience and C# devs still have to learn that part? Code itself is only half the solution.

    The issue here isn’t a “compelling user experience”; it’s getting basic video streaming working correctly.

    Tim

  • Martin

    Also tried to watch stuff on itv.com last night but after half a dozen few second snippets I gave up. Might be my ADSL connection and/or wireless to my computer but BBC/Flash usually works ok. Still the case that DRM control/paranoia stops people from watching stuff legitimately, whilst the people doing the illegitimate stuff work around it all as usual. Several occasions where the BBC DRM stuff has stopped me playing a program I’d downloaded. ITV don’t even offer a download option though.

  • Hi Tim, video is a bit trickier than applications, because of all the data being pushed through. Lots of complaints about any new high-def internet video service are about congestion, ports, last-mile connections, stream management.

    Complaints usually become more pointed if that computer has successfully played any other high-def service, even though there may be significant differences in details of delivery.

    Requiring a software addition, like a cross-browser plugin, raises additional support issues. Requiring a software replacement, like a new browser, imposes even more consumer costs.

    Thanks for the pointer to forums.itv.com. Many of the complaints seem to be about exclusion (no Linux, no Mac DRM). Others point out faulty browser-detection schemes. Many developers seem to underestimate the costs of consumer support for clientside runtimes.

    Seems like they’ve got some hot audience-exclusion issues here, then the normal stream-optimization work, and many installation issues which might have been mitigated with a better support structure. I agree with you that high-profile video projects raise the risk of exposure for decisions on other types of applications.

    jd/adobe

  • NBC had huge amount of servers, so does the BBC. There may be some coding issues but streaming problems are generally down to the size of the pipes. Silverlight has led the way for streaming, but Flash has other advantages and has rapidly overtaken it. I’m sure that Microsoft will be watching the results.

  • sherwin rice

    Next time you experience this problem, try using an http traffic sniffing tool like Fiddler to grab the stream url of the itv show that’s buffering, and then open the stream directly in windows media player to eliminate Silverlight from the equation; it would be interesting to know if you continue to experience the same video issues.

  • Clyde Davies

    And the BBC iPlayer goes from strength to strength in the meanwhile. I’m a beekeeper and there was a program on BBC4 that I missed, so I went onto iPlayer to download it. I hadn’t used it for a while and was prompted to install the iPlayer Desktop, which allows a direct download of the program from the BBC’s servers instead of a peer-to-peer download.

    The software is excellent and the experience is fantastic, but somehow I don’t think this is all down to the BBC preferring Adobe AIR over Silverlight.

  • James

    Silverlight is the problem and as for the comment that “Silverlight has led the way for streaming” that is utter rubbish! after leaving realplayer for our streaming requirements the company I work started to use flash and that was back in 2002.

    Silverlight is an encumbered product that is not developed with cross platform deployment in mind which in todays wired world it has to be. Flash is supported on many devices and operating systems where Silverlight is basically a Microsoft/Windows XP/Vista only product.

    Microsoft has deep enough pockets to make sure cross platform support is there but decide not to along with fixing the many bugs that still continue. Why should content creators use such a product that from the start is alienating a good proportion of your audience. Only reason I have seen has been the cash intensives given out by Microsoft.

    The online Olympic coverage was such an instance and the company in charge of the coverage dropped Silverlight after the Olympics and went back to using flash once the deal had finished. Microsoft should have just spent the money on getting Silverlight to work and not on bribing people to use it.

  • James,

    Let me correct you on several factual errors.

    Silverlight is developed as a cross-platform, cross-browser plug-in from the get-go. If you’re in any doubt about our commitment to cross platform I suggest you check out some of the comments from the editor of MacWorld http://twitter.com/jsnell :

    “Seriously, this NFL video (Sliverlight) is so much smoother than the “premium” MLB video (Flash), it’s like night and day.”

    and “Watching SNF on NBC.com. Silverlight has such better video performance than Flash on the Mac, it’s not even funny. Earth to Adobe.”

    NBC webcast the 2008 Beijing Olympics in Silverlight and far from dropping Silverlight in July they reaffirmed their commitment to the platform for major sporting events including the Vancouver winter Olympics and switching NFL games from Flash to Silverlight smooth streaming.

    Check out some of the responses to the NFL experience on twitter
    http://search.twitter.com/search?q=nfl+silverlight

    John Allwright
    Silverlight Product Manager
    Microsoft

  • Pete

    @John Allwright,

    Let me correct *you* on a factual error.

    Silverlight is not cross-platform in any meaningful sense. If you’re in any doubt about this, please try to use it on a platform other than Windows or OSX. Marketing is great – reality is different.

    I regard this as a great shame personally, because in most respects I’d like Silverlight to succeed; in my mind, it’s the closest thing we have to meeting the technical requirements and the vision for the product is pretty good. However, it’s completely unacceptable that it’s inherently tied to a proprietary and heavily tied-down programming framework [.NET]. Oh, and the attempts to push it on me every time I go to an MS website don’t help my thoughts on this, either.

    Commercially, I’m a technical architect for a .NET shop and have the usual MCxx qualifications (which are a joke, frankly – they test your knowledge of MS’s current Right Way, not reality). However, after 20+ years in the industry and being repeatedly sh@fted by Microsoft’s shennigans, I avoid MS wherever possible on the basis that “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” etc.

    If you really want Silverlight to succeed because it’s good technology (which it is) rather than because it drives the vision of tying people to Microsoft, then please

    1. Cut it loose from Windows and
    2. Release *YOUR OWN* browser plugins with feature-parity to the Windows/IE plugin for at least Linux and Symbian S60.
    3. Release said plugin under a suitable OS licence e.g. MIT or Apache

    Given that MS are such shining paradigms of decoupling the UI and the business logic it shouldn’t be that hard really, should it? Have you managed to get MS Dynamics CRM4 to run in a browser other than IE yet, by the way?

    Until an absolute minimum of points 1 & 2 are met, or MS conclusively win, I will continue to ensure that the company I work for doesn’t use Silverlight. After all, I want to be able to use my own products from home – and none of my non-work-related machines run Windows.

  • Clyde Davies

    Until an absolute minimum of points 1 & 2 are met, or MS conclusively win, I will continue to ensure that the company I work for doesn’t use Silverlight. After all, I want to be able to use my own products from home – and none of my non-work-related machines run Windows.

    So, you would predicate the technical decisions made by your business mainly on your own technological hang-ups and/or lifestyle decisions?

    If I were you I’d hope my boss wasn’t reading this. :-/

  • Pete

    @Clyde Davies

    No, I wouldn’t predicate technical decisions on my own “technological hang-ups”, and I continue to recommend using MS technology for most things (especially development tools!). I do, however, base platform decisions upon more important things such as market share and potential reach.

    Given that the Windows market share for smartphones was estimated at sub 10% less than six months ago (see ), meeting points 1 & 2 (as Adobe have) is IMO essential to achieve sufficient penetration before we consider a major technology change. I’m aware that the RIM devices now support Silverlight, but that could change at any point in time (did you know that MS used to produce a version of IE for the Mac, btw?).

    Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about my boss reading this as he already has.

  • Mr.J .WHEELER

    FIRST THINGS FIST ALWAYS!!! ONE MUST REMEMBER WITHOUT A DOUBT A FLASH [AS IN A BLINK OF A EYE] WILL FOREVER BE BETTER THAN A SILVERLIGHT WORD USEAGE REALLY DEFINE A PRODUCT IN WHAT THE PRODUCT AND COMPANY REPRESENT AND WHAT IT MEANS .MY QUESTION TO MICROSOFT WHAT ARE YOU REALLY DOING WITH THIS PRODUCT AND WHY AT A CONSUMERS EXSPENCE AND TIME I WHICH MEANS THERE IS NOTHING REALLY FREE SILVERLIGHT HAS CAUSED MY COMPUTER TO LOCKUP WITH MSN WOW. THANK GOD FOR THE BACK UP . I FEEL THERE ARE TO MANY ISSUES WITH SILVERLIGHT IT WORKS WHEN IT WANT TO OR IS IT WHEN YOU WANT IT TO .ADOBE IS NUMBER 1.[PERIOD] THAKS FOR ASING FOR MY COMMENT.BUT THE REAL COMMENT NEEDS TO BE MADE WHAT DO YOU AND ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT THIS??? THANK YOU AGAIN YOUR YOUR TIME. MR.J.WHEELER

  • B. A. Erick

    I subscribe to AHLLive, which used Flash last year and for several emails this year swore they still did, but if I removed Silverlite from my computer, the video streaming said it required silverlite. Last week they finally said it requires the latest version of Silverlite, which I have. Last year, I hardly had a stutter because I could adjust the buffer size. Silverlite give you zero options. I get constant stuttering and pixeliation. I never got pixelation from flash, only until I increased the buffer.

    Also, the other thing I hate is that the time bar and cursor do not hide when left alone in full screen mode. This may be in the websites programming, but it appears to the end user as something not ready for prime time.