I am intensely interested in the BBC iPlayer, set to launch on 27 July. It’s a landmark in the convergence of the internet and broadcasting.
This is a convergence I welcome. I missed most of the Glastonbury 2007 broadcasts, but I’ve enjoyed the BBC’s watch and listen page which gives you immediate access to most of the sets*, despite the relatively low quality (225 kbps video, 64 kbps audio, according to the player). Just click a set and it plays, no chit-chat, no messing around with programme schedules or having to decide in advance what to record. The iPlayer promises bitrates of perhaps 750kbps to 1Mbps – effectively full broadcast quality. The immediate advantage is time-shifting, but longer term there are other interesting possibilities in internet broadcasting, such as greater interactivity and the ability to customize what you view. We saw some great demonstrations of this (using Silverlight) at Microsoft’s Mix07 earlier this year.
The iPlayer is also an important example of commercial use of peer-to-peer technology, using kontiki.
The problem is that the BBC needs to restrict playback to seven days after first broadcast, otherwise it runs into copyright difficulties. I am sure people will put their energy into trying to bypass these restrictions, and may well succeed, but the BBC has to at least make a serious attempt to enforce it. It is this that pushed the BBC into the arms of Microsoft’s DRM, to the understandable upset of Mac users and Microsoft haters, although a Mac iPlayer is promised at some future time.
This aspect bothers me as well, not only because of cross-platform issues, but because I question whether Microsoft is able to deliver DRM that just works. See here for an amusing account of how a tech-savvy Windows user struggled to purchase and play an audio file using this system. The iPlayer appears to be based on Windows Media Player, which is notorious for its cryptic error messages and intricate, hard-to-solve problems. Here’s an example plucked from the windows.media.player newsgroup:
I just tried playing both some new songs I had just downloaded, and when those wouldn’t play, some older ones that have been on my computer awhile, but each time I try to open the songs, I get the following: “…cannot play the file because a security upgrade is required. Do you want to download the upgrade?”. I click “upgrade”, but absolutely nothing happens.
I took a look at the iPlayer beta message boards, and there’s no shortage of folk with similar problems. I realise that that you must expect problem reports on internet forums, but my impression is that problems with Windows Media Player and Microsoft DRM are more prolific than they should be.
I can readily believe this, because Microsoft has woven so many dependencies into the fabric of Windows. This is what makes patching a Windows system so frustrating. You start off trying to fix a problem with, say, Microsoft Office, and end up having to install updates to seemingly unrelated components like Internet Explorer, ”Genuine Advantage” ActiveX controls, or Windows Installer, some of which inevitably require restarting the system. It’s bad enough when it all works as expected, but when something fails it is truly a challenge to recover.
I’ve not yet had an opportunity to try iPlayer myself. Nor do I know if the BBC intends to move from WMP to Silverlight, though I believe it may do since this would bring Intel Mac compatibility. I suspect it would also be more trouble-free, since Silverlight does not have as many dependencies – I was told at Mix07 that it has its own media player and does not try to embed WMP.
What chance is that that BBC iPlayer will have a smooth and untroubled launch when it goes public on 27th July 2007?
*PS on Glastonbury 2007: If you have time on your hands, watch the Iggy and the Stooges performance. It has amazing energy, particularly considering the man’s age, and you also get a hilarious stage invasion which has even the Ig pleading with the audience to back off and give him some space.