Category Archives: bbc

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BBC seeks web response from unconnected users

This really needs a cartoonist. I thought I should grab it before it gets changed.

“The BBC was surprised by the lack of response to its latest Internet survey”

The serious point: now you have another reason not to trust web surveys.

Update: The BBC’s form is not completely daft: it says “at home” and you might be on the Internet at work or in a café. Still, that’s going to be unrepresentative of the 30% – it is exactly the sub-set which is already proven to be Internet users, whereas we most want to hear from those who are not and need to be “persuaded to go online”. Thanks to @rupertg and @putsimply on Twitter for the correction.

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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.

BBC adopting Adobe AIR for platform-neutral iPlayer downloads

Just noticed that the BBC is adopting Adobe AIR to create a platform-neutral download client for iPlayer. Erik Huggers says:

Today, we are announcing that in partnership with Adobe we are building a platform-neutral download client.

Using Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), we intend to make BBC iPlayer download functionality available on Mac, Linux and Windows for the first time later this year. Whatever platform you use, you’ll now be able to download TV programmes from the BBC to watch later.

This follows much criticism of the BBC for its original Windows-only iPlayer.

Looks like Adobe has the BBC in its grip, technology wise, having ousted Microsoft from iPlayer completely – though I believe it is still experimenting with Silverlight’s Deep Zoom.

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BBC iPlayer supporting H.264 in Flash – what’s the point of downloading now?

The BBC’s streamed catch-up broadcasting, iPlayer, is about to be upgraded to the high-definition H.264 standard, according to this post, from the BBC’s Head of Digital Media Anthony Rose.

He says that the “Play high quality” option will be available “from this week”, though I couldn’t see any sign of it on a brief sampling of available content.

The question: where does this leave the download service, based on peer-to-peer file sharing? This is the thing that caused me considerable hassle this time last year, and which also drew criticism because it is Windows-only.

By contrast, the Flash-based embedded video seems to have performed as smoothly as Flash usually does.

When Flash streaming was introduced, the BBC said that the download option would remain for higher-quality viewing, but with H.264 Flash that argument has little force. It is still comforting to have a downloaded file, in case your Net connection fails or becomes congested, but other than that there is little advantage. My guess is that it will wither. Supporting both must be expensive.

It is unfortunate for Microsoft, whose technology is losing out to Adobe’s at the BBC, particularly since Silverlight would probably have worked nicely in this context. Unfortunately the old iPlayer is not Silverlight, but based on Windows Media Player, known to be hassle-prone as well as being single platform.

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BBC iPlayer beta firewall issues

I was disappointed when my first efforts to use the BBC’s streaming iPlayer beta failed. Whatever content I chose, I got the message: This content isn’t available at the moment.

Right-clicking the player lets you copy a further error message, which says:

Title: akamai:AkamaiServiceError.AKAMAI_API
Description: Connection attempt failed
Code: 18

At first I blamed beta unreliability; then when it continued I wondered if it could be a firewall issue. I use Microsoft’s ISA Server. I looked at the log, and noticed that traffic on port 1935 was being blocked. I added a new protocol which I called iPlayer, for outbound TCP traffic on port 1935. I added this to the web access rule in ISA Server. Now it works.

It’s a great service. The quality is fine. For some reason I care deeply about audio quality when listening to music, but when it comes to most video content, I mind much less.

Note: I don’t know if this is the only firewall issue with iPlayer, or if the port may change in future. Others have fixed similar issues just by clearing cookies or their browser cache. All I can say is that this fixed the problem for me.

I also think that the BBC’s player could display a more helpful error message; and I’d like to see technical information on what the requirements are. I couldn’t find anything useful here.

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The BBC’s Global Visual Language

Not a pictorial version of Esperanto; rather, a set of design guidelines for bbc.co.uk:

The global visual language is a set of guidelines which aim to bring more consistency to the site by introducing an underlying design grid and consistent design patterns, icons, buttons, image sizes and a pan-BBC audio/video player.

according to BBC interaction designer and blogger Ben Hanbury. His main focus is the revised iPlayer site, which has the last seven days of the BBC’s TV and radio output available on-demand via a media player based on Flash – Adobe must be delighted.

That said, the new iPlayer site is one of the few examples I’ve known where Flash content does not play reliably. On my normal PC I get the useless and inaccurate message, “This content isn’t available at the moment.” Seems to be a firewall issue. I’ll post again if I can work out exactly what the problem is.

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BBC standardizing on Flash for web video

I’m at Qcon London listening to John O’Donovan, Chief Architect, and Kevin Hinde, Head of Software Development, both from the BBC.

They are talking about video on bbc.co.uk. Previously this has been handled through pop-up pages that give a choice between Windows Media Player and Real Media. The BBC will now be standardising on Adobe Flash video, embedded in the page rather than in a pop-up. Their research has found that embedded video has a much better click-through than the pop-up style. It also has editorial implications, because it is better integrated into the page. In due course, Flash will be the sole public format (an archive is also kept in some other format).

There is going to be increasing video on the site. Apparently the BBC is getting better at negotiating rights to video content, and we can expect lots of video from this year’s Olympics, for example.

As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with iPlayer, the service which offers the last 7 days of broadcasting online. This is mainly about short videos of news content.

Incidentally, I’m disappointed that we are not getting more detail on the rebuilding of the web platform about which I posted earlier, though it has been mentioned in passing as a move to dynamic publishing. That was more interesting to me, and perhaps more in tune with what Qcon is about. Still, this is worthwhile as well.

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The BBC is rebuilding its web platform

Yesterday here at Qcon I attended an informal get-together to discuss the BBC’s “tech refresh”, which turns out to mean the rebuilding of its web platform.

Apparently the budget has just been approved, which means the BBC will be going ahead with a new content platform built on Java supplemented by a lightweight PHP layer. The primary goal is flexibility. Recently the BBC went live with a new widgety home page which demonstrates its interest in personalization; ambitions include more extensive customization, more of a social platform (possibly using OpenSocial, OpenID); making a platform more amenable to mash-ups; data-only APIs.

As an aside, the BBC home page right now is a bit broken; it says “due to technical problems we are displaying a simplified version of the BBC homepage.” After yesterday’s session, I know a bit about why this is. The BBC’s current site is mostly based on Perl scripts and static pages. It’s not really a content management system. The recent home page innovations, which I blogged about recently, are not hosted on the new platform, but are a somewhat hacky affair built on the old platform using SSI and parsing cookies with regular expressions. It went live, but is currently not very reliable. It also uses more CPU, which ultimately means more servers are needed.

So what is the BBC’s backup plan for when its site fails? Well, it has a “big red button” which is really designed for moments of crisis when the whole world descends on the BBC to find out breaking news – an example was the London bombing in July 2005. At such times, scalability trumps everything, so the big red button switches on a simple home page which removes non-critical features like user tracking or smart widgets. The same procedure is handy for fallback if there are technical problems.

Another thing which interested me: apparently BBC pages are designed in PhotoShop and handed over to HTML coders for implementation. Unfortunately this doesn’t fit well with what I would like, which is pages that reflow nicely when you resize the page.

The BBC is conscious of its archival responsibilities and works with the Internet Archive. One of its problems is having to keep old material online, including some driven by old Perl scripts or even in some cases C scripts where the code has been lost. It is considering the use of virtualization to host old versions of Perl for content like this.

There is a bit of Ruby on the site but this has been problematic because of memory leaks. Maybe JRuby would help.

The current/old BBC site may be built on old and unfashionable technology, but I’ve personally appreciated its great availability and performance. And the lack of ads, of course.

I’m attending a further session on the BBC news site later today, so perhaps another post later.

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New gadgety home page at bbc.co.uk

The BBC has a new customizable home page, with gadgets similar to those at Netvibes, iGoogle and elsewhere.

First impressions are mixed. I don’t like it’s large size (1024 x 768), even though this is the trend. This issue is not the size of my display, but that I don’t necessarily want the browser to occupy so much of it. I’m sorry there is not more effort put into web pages that resize nicely – one of the reasons I like Times Reader and its cousins.

Second, I found myself with large blank areas after a quick go at customization. I also noticed that even if I selected many more subcategories for the News panel, it is still much less informative and useful than the old-style (and smaller) News home page, which to be honest is normally where I go to when I visit the BBC. I hope there is no rush to update the News page to the same style.

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