Category Archives: bbc

The cross-platform app problem. What should the BBC do?

The BBC released a new sports app last week. In the comments to the announcement though, there is little attention given to the app or its content. Rather, the discussion is about why the BBC has apparently prioritised iOS over Android, since the Android version is not yet ready, with an occasional interjection from a Windows Phone user about why there is nothing at all for them.


BBC I think you need to actually catch up on what’s happening. Android is huge now. You should be launching both platforms together. A lot of people I know have switched to an Android device and your app release almost feels like discrimination!

says one user; while the BBC’s Lucie Mclean, product manager for mobile services, replies:

Back in July, when we launched the Olympics app for iPhone and Android together, we saw over three times as many downloads of the iPhone version. Android continues to grow apace but this, together with the development and testing complexity, led us to the decision to phase the iOS app first.

BBC Technology correspondent spoke to head of iPlayer David Danker about this problem back in December. Danker claims that the BBC spends more “energy” (I am not sure if that means time or just frustration) on Android than Apple, and mainly blames Android fragmentation and the existence of more low-end devices for the delays:

It’s not just fragmentation of the operating system – it is the sheer variety of devices. Before Ice Cream Sandwich (an early variant of the Android operating system) most Android devices lacked the ability to play high quality video. If you used the same technology as we’ve always used for iPhone, you’d get stuttering or poor image quality. So we’re having to develop a variety of approaches for Android

A couple of things are obvious. One is that Apple’s clearly-defined iOS development platform and limited range of devices is a win for developers. Despite frustrations over things like the way apps are sandboxed or Apple’s approval process, it is easier to target iOS than Android because the platform is more consistent. iOS users are also relatively prosperous and highly engaged with the web and the app store, so that even though Apple’s overall platform market share has fallen behind that of Android, it is still the most important market in some contexts.

Another is that the BBC cannot win. From a PR perspective, it should probably do simultaneous iOS and Android releases even if that means a delay, but even then there will be complaints over differences in detail between iOS and Android implementations. Further, the voices of those neglected minorities, such as Windows Phone and soon, Blackberry 10 users, will grow louder if iOS and Android achieve parity.

In all this, it is worth noting that the BBC gets one thing right, prioritising the mobile web:

The decision to launch the core mobile browser site first (before either app) was itself to ensure that users got a quality product across as wide a range of devices as possible.

says Mclean.

Personally I wonder if the the BBC needs to do all these niche apps. The iPlayer app is the one that really matters, particularly when it offers download for offline viewing, but is a sports app so necessary?

Should it not concentrate instead on first, the mobile web site, and second, APIs that third-party developers can use, enabling developers on each platform to create high quality apps?

Another option would be to make cross-platform a religion, and cover all significant platforms while giving up some of the benefits of native code. High quality video is a problem; but in many scenarios the quality of the video is not such a big issue provided that it works and is intelligible.

Perhaps the BBC could make Cordova (an open source framework for cross-platform mobile apps) video work better. Having the BBC invest its publicly funded resources into open source cross-platform development is better PR than developing expensive apps for single platforms.

IE9 ActiveX Filtering causing tears of frustration

I have been assisting a friend who, she told me, could not get BBC iPlayer to work. Further, another site was telling her she did not have ActiveX, but she was sure she had it.

This was puzzling me. She described how she went to the BBC iPlayer site, and it said she needed to install Flash.


She clicked the link and got to Adobe’s download site. She clicked Download now and got a page describing four steps to install, but nothing happened, no download.

She clicked Adobe’s troubleshooting guide, which took her through uninstalling Flash Player and then a manual download. All seemed to work but at the end of it, it was the same. Go to the BBC site, and be told to install Flash Player.

You can understand how computers, at times, can seem downright hostile to the long-suffering user.

What was the problem? I logged on with remote assistance. Somehow, IE9 had ActiveX Filtering enabled.


This is actually a great security feature. ActiveX is disabled on all sites by default. A little blue circle symbol appears at top right.


Click this symbol and you can turn off filtering for this site only.


Yes, great feature, once you are aware of it – but too subtle to be noticed by the average user browsing the web. From the user’s perspective, no amount of uninstalling and reinstalling of Flash Player would fix it, and the PC was about to be flung across the room in frustration.

The other problem is that the feature is too new and too little used to feature in most of the troubleshooting guides out there. It is not mentioned in Adobe’s page on troubleshooting Flash on Windows and in IE, for example.

How the setting got enabled in the first place is a mystery. Maybe a mis-click. It is unchecked by default, and you can see why.

Conclusions? I guess it shows that security without usability is ineffective; and that minimalist user interfaces can work against you if they in effect hide important information from the user.

Incidentally, this is why  I dislike the Windows 7 feature that hides notification icons by default. It is user-hostile and I advise disabling it by ticking Always shot all icons and notifications on the taskbar.

It may be more secure, but I would not consider enabling ActiveX Filtering for non-technical users.

Cross-platform concerns as Adobe abandons AIR for Linux

Adobe is giving up on AIR for Linux – at least, in a fully supported manner:

To support the variety of Linux-based platforms across PCs and devices, we are prioritizing a Linux porting kit for AIR (including source code), which Open Screen Project (OSP) partners can use to complete implementations of AIR for Linux-based platforms on PCs, mobile devices, TVs and TV-connected devices. We will no longer be releasing our own versions of Adobe AIR and the AIR SDK for desktop Linux, but expect that one or more of our partners will do so. The last Adobe release of AIR for desktop Linux is AIR 2.6.

This is a curious message. OSP partners include ARM, Intel, the BBC, Google, Toshiba and other big names; but which of these might build an AIR SDK and on what sort of terms might it be supplied? Or it is more likely that, say, the BBC will deliver BBC iPlayer for LInux in a bundle that includes the AIR runtime? Or is it just wishful thinking?

Adobe’s open source evangelist Dave McAllister has a go at defending the decision, pointing out that the growing client operating systems are Android and iOS, not desktop Linux, and that AIR for Linux accounts for only a 0.5% download share. However, Linux developers observe that Adobe’s AIR for Linux effort has always been half-hearted and tricky to install, especially on 64-bit installations. AIR itself is still 32-bit, as is the Flash Player on all systems, though there is 64-bit version in preview codenamed “Square”.

Most people run Windows or Mac desktops, and will not miss AIR for Linux. That said, decisions like this do undermine confidence in the Flash platform as a cross-platform proposition. The problem is, Flash technology is not open source and ultimately whether a particular platform is supported is a matter for Adobe, with all the commercial and political factors that implies.

The risk for Adobe is that when it abandons smaller platforms, it make open standard alternatives and in particular the collection of web technologies we call HTML5 more attractive.

BBC iPlayer goes a little social – but what can it learn from YouTube?

BBC’s iPlayer, which offers but live TV and radio and an on demand catch-up service, has gone live with a new version that adds personalisation as well as links to Facebook and Twitter for limited interaction with your social media contacts.

Presenting a personalised iPlayer web page is more demanding, as every visitor sees a slightly different page. Technical Architect Simon Frost explains that the BBC adopted PHP and the Zend framework in order to enable sharing of components and modules – previously the site was built with Perl and server side includes.

It has been interesting to see the reaction in user comments to the announcement by James Hewines, which are more negative than positive. The gist of the complaints is that many users want the site to get out of the way rather than be a more interactive web destination, and find that the new version adds clutter rather than speeding navigation:

This site should not be fun to use. It should be … a very brief stop between powering the computer up and watching or listening a programme.

This does not necessarily mean the BBC is getting it wrong. It is not really hard to find items, and linking BBC content to social networks does have a certain inevitability. It is a shame though that the most interesting feature described by Anthony Rose back in May seems to be missing – integration with Live Messenger so that you can see your contacts comment on the live content. This is what it was meant to look like:


That said, does it make sense to hook into Live Messenger when Facebook is more at the centre of today’s social networks on the Web? Still, this may appear at some future date.

As it is, we get only limited social interaction through recommendations. No ratings, no public comments or reviews attached to items, nothing that might add real interest to the site.

Contrast this with YouTube. It is a different kind of broadcasting of course, much of it amateur, quantity not quality, no live broadcasts as such, and content that persists (whereas BBC content disappears after a few days). Perhaps because it was born as a social media site, rather than being a traditional broadcaster trying to grok the Web, YouTube does community to a far greater extent than the BBC. Individuals can even create their own “channels” of content, becoming a destination within a destination that appeals to friends or those with the same niche interests.

The BBC’s exploration of social media is just too timid to make an impact. I interviewed Rose back in 2008 and he made a telling comment about how the BBC would remain a place safe from the unpleasantness of one-star ratings and nasty comments:

Rose says that upcoming iPlayer features, such as ratings and discussions, will be restricted to networks of friends, rather than made public. "Rating works really well in YouTube where you’ve got a million videos. In iPlayer, if you rate Parliament channel as zero stars, are you saying that Parliament is rubbish, or that you just don’t want to watch Parliament? Rating in the context of the BBC is very useful, but only when you’ve got a friends network."

Unfortunately safe also means dull, and I doubt the social aspect of iPlayer will make much impact as currently implemented.

I still love iPlayer. I have less time to watch than I would like; but I clicked the HD channel and was soon watching a stunning programme about scaling ancient buildings, in this case Durham Cathedral. Played full-screen, the photography was beautiful and the content both entertaining and educational, the BBC at its best.



Note that there was no need to involve the desktop player to enjoy this; it worked fine from the web; and I suspect that the download player gets relatively little use compared to the iPlayer site – the BBC won’t discuss this, saying “We cannot report on playback of downloads due to technical and data privacy restrictions”, which makes little sense to me.

Perhaps the comments are right – the BBC should concentrate on its content, and leave the social stuff to others who do it better.

BBC News app arrives on iPhone

Today the BBC received approval from the BBC Trust to create apps for mobile devices such as Apple iPhone/iPad and Google Android. Wasting no time, the corporation published a BBC News App on the App Store today.   

But what is the point? Is this really better than simply going to the web site:


It is worse in some ways, because there is a disconnect between content locked in an app, and content on the world web web where it can be linked and searched. There is also an argument over whether the publicly funded BBC creating apps for luxury mobile devices, instead of investing in more public content, though I’d imagine that the cost of creating the app is small relative to the cost of producing the content. The BBC no doubt feels under pressure to keep up with competitors such as Sky News, which already has an app available.

The BBC app becomes more interesting if you click the Live button, though you need a good connection, preferably wi-fi:


The app becomes a news-dedicated iPlayer for iPhone; a full iPlayer is also promised. A nice feature; though even this can be done on the web as long as you use Apple’s QuickTime format rather than not-invented-here Adobe Flash.

BBC iPlayer goes social

I’m just back from the BBC’s press briefing on the new iPlayer. This is a public beta. The press release is here.

The big story is that social media features are now integrated. The idea is that you can post recommendations (or otherwise) to Twitter and Facebook about programmes you are viewing, or participate in real-time chat via Microsoft Live Messenger. The Messenger feature will be delivered later than the other features; a beta is promised “later this summer.”

I was interested to see these features delivered, as I spoke to the BBC’s Anthony Rose about them at Adobe MAX in 2008 and wrote it up for The Guardian. I talked to Rose again today and asked why Twitter, Facebook and Live Messenger had been favoured above other social media services?

There are only so many hours in the day, you’ve got to start somewhere. We picked the major ones. In the case of the chat, the technical requirements are actually really high, you need presence detection, there needs to be user to user chat, and it turns out that Facebook doesn’t have that kind of presence detection. So very few platforms have the technical bits that are necessary. But absolutely we’re looking to get the others on board, we know that people are going to want it. We had a choice of ship nothing, or try and dip the toes in the water

This is in line with a theme we heard a lot about today: that the BBC will go where the users are. Devices will be supported only if they succeed in attracting a large user base. We also heard that BBC Online is narrowing its focus, and will not needlessly duplicate what third parties already do. For example, the BBC has no intention of creating its own social network, even though over a million individuals have registered a BBC ID. Rather, it will link that identity to existing social networks, initially Twitter and Facebook. At least, that’s the current strategy. The BBC is a public broadcasting service financed by a licence fee, and its strategy is partly set from above; it has changed recently and will no doubt change again.

Still, iPlayer is a superb service and one reason I am personally happy to keep paying the fee.

What next for the BBC and its world-beating website?

The UK’s public broadcasting company the BBC is in the spotlight, thanks to a new strategy review and ensuing discussion. I have only just read it, because of other work, but I think it is significant. The BBC’s Director-General Mark Thompson says:

Clearly the BBC needs the space to evolve as audiences and technologies develop, but it must be far more explicit than it has been in the past about what it will not do. Its commercial activity should help fund and actively support the BBC’s public mission, and never distort or supplant that mission.
Where actual or potential market impact outweighs public value, the BBC should leave space clear for others. The BBC should not attempt to do everything. It must listen to legitimate concerns from commercial media players more carefully than it has in the past and act sooner to meet them. It needs the confidence and clarity to stop as well as to start doing things.

Why such negativity? The essence of the problem is that the BBC has been too successful for some. Commercial broadcasters and web sites have to compete with an organisation that is publically funded, and complain that it is unfair competition. The BBC demonstrates the effectiveness of the subscription model, especially when that subscription is all-but compulsory. In the UK, you have to pay the licence fee if you have equipment capable of receiving its TV broadcasts.

My main interest is in the BBC website. It is one I use constantly, and I do not think there is anything like it in the world. It offers comprehensive news, features and comment, on a site that is fast and resilient, and without the irritation of advertising. For example, if I want to know the latest state of play in financial markets, I head straight to the BBC’s Market Data page.

The absence of advertising has several benefits. First, it increases confidence in the neutrality of the site. Second, it improves performance – I’m aware that my own blog is slowed down by ad scripts, for example, and I’m not happy about it; but I’m also trying to make business sense out of running the site. Third, it improves usability in other ways, with less distraction and increased space for content. Note though that the BBC site does carry advertising when viewed from non-UK locations.

The BBC web site is an enormous success, the 44th most visited in the world according to Alexa, and the top news site ( is next at 61) unless you count Yahoo, which is something different to my mind.

So what do you do with a world leader? Cut it, apparently. The report talks about “focusing” the BBC web site by:

  • Halving the number of sections on the site and improving its quality by closing lower-performing sites and consolidating the rest
  • Spending 25% less on the site per year by 2013
  • Turning the site into a window on the web by providing at least one external link on every page and doubling monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites

This is made more explicit later in the report:

  • To help ensure that this refocusing takes place, the BBC will spend 25% less on BBC Online by 2013, with a corresponding reduction in staffing levels
  • The number of sections on the site (its ‘top-level directories’, in the form will be halved by 2012, with many sites closed and others consolidated
  • New investment will be in pursuit of the five content priorities only, and there will be far fewer bespoke programme websites
  • BBC Online will be transformed into a window on the web with, by 2012, an external link on every page and at least double the current rate of ‘click-throughs’ to external sites.

There is an even more explicit section on BBC Online further down (pages 36-37) – the report seems to say the same thing several times with more detail on each iteration – but I won’t quote it all here. I will note that the sections identified for removal are not ones that matter to me, with the possible exception of local news:

Restricting local sites in England to news, sport, weather, travel and local knowledge (where ‘local knowledge’ means supporting BBC initiatives such as Coast and A History of the World in 100 Objects where there is local relevance, but not general feature content)

I do understand the problem here. Consider, for example, UK newspaper sites like the excellent – disclaimer – there are a few of my own contributions there. Such sites do not really make money, because they depend on synergy with print media that is in decline, not least because of advertisers turning to the web. There is a big debate in the media industry about whether to charge subscriptions for sites like these, as the New York Times has done, and will do again. However, the existence and quality of the BBC’s free site significantly impairs the prospects for subscriptions to UK newspaper sites.

This, I presume, is why the BBC intends to increase the number of external links; a small compensation for its unfair advantage.

Nevertheless, I think the BBC is mad to consider reducing its online investment. It is against the trend; the web is rising in importance, and traditional broadcasting decreasing. It is bad for the UK, for which the BBC is excellent PR and a genuine service to the world. It is bad for subscribers such as myself, enforced or not, who want the online service to get better, not worse.

Rather than cutting back on the BBC’s most strategic services, I’d favour looking again at the way the BBC is funded and what happens to the licence fee, which is an anomaly. I don’t see any reason in principle why it should not be shared with other organisations that are serving the public interest in news and media.

Why I don’t want to view through an app

The BBC has announced mobile apps for BBC content, the first being for the iPhone. There is a demo posted by David Madden here:

Our aim is to develop core public service apps that bring some of the BBC’s most popular and distinctive content to mobile in a genuinely user-friendly and accessible way.

In another post Erik Huggers explains our mobile future.

I have reservations about this approach, and wonder if the BBC has been unduly influenced by Apple’s iPhone marketing – “there’s an app for that.” The iPlayer desktop application makes perfect sense for downloading and viewing video offline; but why make an app to view a web site? I can think of several objections:

1. It introduces inequality between devices. So iPhone is first. Blackberry and Android are mentioned. What about Palm WebOS? What about Windows Phone 7? Maybe Flash can help with that as a common runtime; but Flash won’t be on Windows Phone in its first release. Older devices will be left behind, even where they have decent web browsers.

2. It breaks the web. Well, one app does not break the web. But if every major web site decides it has to deliver its content through an app, what happens to hyperlinks? You can go from app to Web, I imagine, but if the target site also delivers its best mobile content through an app, what then? Imagine what the web would be like if, instead of browsing, you were constantly app-switching.

3. It moves mobile to a separate world. The truth is, there isn’t a hard and fast distinction between a mobile device and a desktop device. A laptop is mobile, but more like a desktop in terms of web browsing. What about the iPad? What about all the new form factors coming down the line? There isn’t any more reason to have apps for mobile devices than there is for desktop devices.

4. It distracts investment away from what the BBC should be doing: optimising its web site for mobile, and degrading gracefully for less powerful web browsers.

Are there cases where a BBC app might make sense? Maybe a special for the 2012 olympics, that delivers the latest results, for example? Quite possibly; but what concerns me is the idea that apps become the main way to view BBC content on a phone, rather than the web browser. It is a bad precedent, and one that I hope is not imitated by others.

Going Mobile

In the back of my mind I knew that this blog looked terrible on a mobile, but I did nothing about it until @monkchips complained that it was unreadable on his HTC Magic, which runs Google Android 1.6.

I don’t have an Android device, but I grabbed the SDK, ran up the emulator, and had a look. The page took ages to load, and did not work properly even when fully loaded.

I figured “there’s a plugin for that”, and there is – several in fact. I settled on the WordPress Mobile Pack. Installed, configured, and a short time later was up and running.

I had a few hassles, mainly because most of my wordpress installation is not writeable by the web server, and this plugin needs to write themes on installation and temporary images after that, so I had to loosen permissions slightly. I then set the themes directory back to read-only, and configured the cache so that Apache will only serve images.

I still only get a score of Fair (2 fails) from the MobiReady report. Still, progress. I am ahead of which gets Bad (10 fails); but behind which rates Good (0 fails).

The plugin also tells me that 5% of the traffic to this site is from mobile users. More than I had expected.

Beep beep.

BBC trying out HTML 5, video element

The BBC has an HTML 5 demonstration using the video element. The video itself is encoded in both Ogg and H.264. In the screenshot below I have just clicked on a navigation image to jump to a specific place in the video. The demonstration is meant to work in Firefox, Safari and Chrome, though for me it only ran in Firefox (3.5).

There is a detailed comment from the BBC’s Sam Dutton on why the proof of concept was put together here. There is an interesting remark on why the BBC is interested in this approach, which does not require a plugin like Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight:

Flash and other Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) provide something like this already via timeline scripting, but RIAs are ‘black boxes’, using compilers and obfuscators to hide code and data: great if you want to protect intellectual property, whereas we needed to provide a mechanism whereby data and the code acting on it were open and accessible. HTML 5 and the jQuery JavaScript framework gave us the tools we needed without requiring extra plugins or proprietary software.

From a technical perspective, Dutton remarks that the HTML 5 solution is more efficient if you want to synchronize other elements with the playing video:

The HTML 5 audio and video elements remove the need for player plugins, work like any other HTML element in terms of styling and positioning, and standardise the programming interface for playback control. Less well known is that these elements emit a timeupdate event (at a frequency adjusted to fit available processing and memory) which removes the need to poll a player for the current time position. This makes media scripting far more efficient, since there is no need to run a loop or use setTimeout. In tests run on several machines we found that timeupdate events are emitted regularly and frequently (particularly in Firefox), whereas polling a media player for current video time is unreliable.

Dutton adds:

… it’s early days for us on this and there are a number of serious challenges before this becomes anything near mainstream – if ever.

The BBC is an influential site and its experiments will attract keen interest from those watching the evolution of web video.