Tag 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.

BBC replaces Flash with Flash in Android iPlayer

The BBC has announced its solution to the lack of mobile Flash on Android devices, which meant that its iPlayer catch-up service did not work on recent devices like Google’s popular Nexus 7 (though there are hacks to make it work).

However, the BBC is not really replacing Flash, but instead creating a media player that is compiled from Flash into a native Android app. This means that the Flash runtime is compiled into the app.

In the end, Flash was still the best choice of media format for us to use. And the only practical technology for us to play this format back on Android is Adobe Air.

says the BBC’s Chris Yanda.

Yanda points out that using HTTP Live Streaming is impractical since it is not supported on versions of Android prior to Honeycomb; and the majority of Android devices in use are Froyo or Gingerbread.

Judging by the comments, users are glad to have something but disappointed with the BBC’s support for Android. The native iOS app is much better, especially considering that it now supports downloads. On a recent flight I took an iPad with me solely for the ability to watch iPlayer content offline.

Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows RT tablets will support Flash, as I understand it, though only for a limited subset of web sites. Presuming BBC iPlayer is on that list, it should work.


Dear BBC: please give us mobile apps for offline viewing

The BBC has announced apps for Android and iPad, sparking a bad-tempered discussion (see the comments) in which users complain about two things:

1. The requirement for Flash 10.1 or higher on Android, which limits it to Android 2.2

2. The fact that catch-up viewing is only available on-demand, as on the Web, and not for offline viewing.


Both are interesting points, but to my mind the first is the biggest deal. As one of the commenters observes:

As people have pointed out you can use the web interface to watch so using up valuable memory on a phone for an app that does the same thing essentially is not very useful!

By contrast, the ability to download two or three programmes for viewing on the train or plane would be a huge feature. Downloaded video is also more robust even when you are online, thanks to the variability of typical wifi or 3G connections.

Storage is an issue, but not such a bad one now that cards with 16GB or more are commonplace. My HTC Desire currently has 14GB free on the storage card – plenty for a few videos in quality suitable for a tiny screen.

Apple’s devices do not support add-on storage cards, but even the cheapest iPhone 4 has 16GB of storage, as does the iPad.

Failing that, I would rather see the BBC invest in optimising its web site for mobile, rather than creating apps that add little value. See my earlier post, Why I don’t want to view bbc.co.uk through an app.

Too much to ask? The BBC’s Nick Reynolds promises a follow-up post next week, so perhaps we will discover then.

If Microsoft is serious about Silverlight, it needs to do Linux

Today was a significant event for the UK broadcasting industry: the announcement of YouView, formerly called Project Canvas, which is backed by partners including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and BT. It will provide broadcasts over IP, received by a set top box, include a catch-up service, and be capable of interactive features that hook into internet services.

Interesting stuff, though it may end up battling with Google TV. But what are the implications for media streaming services and media players? One is that they will have to run on Linux, which is the official operating system for Project Canvas. Google TV, for that matter, will run Android.

If you look at the YouView specifications, you’ll find that although the operating system is specified, the application player area is more open:

Application Player executables and libraries will be provided by 3rd party software vendors.

What is an application player?

Runtime environment for the execution of applications. Examples are Flash player, MHEG engine, W3C browser

I’d suggest that Adobe will do well out of YouView. Microsoft, on the other hand, will not be able to play in this space unless it delivers Silverlight for Linux, Android, and other open platforms.

Microsoft has a curious history of cross-platform Silverlight announcements. Early on it announced that Moonlight was the official Linux player, though in practice support for Moonlight has been half-hearted. Then when Intel announced the Atom Developer Program  (now AppUp) in September 2009, Microsoft stated that it would provide its own build of Silverlight for Linux, or rather, than Intel would build it with Microsoft’s code. Microsoft’s Brian Goldfarb told me that Microsoft and Intel would work together on bringing Silverlight to devices, while Moonlight would be the choice for desktop Linux.

Since then, the silence has been deafening. I’ve enquired about progress with both Intel and Microsoft, but vague rumours aside, no news. Silverlight is still listed as a future runtime for AppUp:

Microsoft® Silverlight™(future)

Silverlight is a cross-browser, cross-platform and cross-device browser plug-in that helps companies design, develop and deliver applications and experiences on the Web.

In the meantime, Adobe has gone ahead with its AIR runtime, and even if Silverlight eventually appears, has established an early presence on Intel’s netbook platform.

There have been recent rumours about internal battles between the Windows and Developer divisions at Microsoft, and I cannot help wondering if this is another symptom, with the Windows folk fighting against cross-platform Silverlight on the grounds that it could damage the Windows lock-in, while the Developer team tries to make Silverlight the ubiquitous runtime that it needs to be in order to succeed.

From my perspective, the answer is simple. Suppressing Silverlight will do nothing to safeguard Windows, whereas making it truly cross-platform could drive adoption of Microsoft’s server and cloud platform. When Silverlight was launched, just doing Windows and Mac was almost enough, but today the world looks different. If Microsoft is serious about WPF Everywhere, Linux and Android (which is Linux based) support is a necessity.

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 (cnn.com 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 bbc.co.uk/sitename) 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 guardian.co.uk – 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 bbc.co.uk 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.