If you happen to read the BBC Internet Blog, the picture that has appeared today on one of their postings might be familiar, especially if you’ve read my post about the BBC iPlayer. One interesting thing I’ve learnt from the e-mail exchange with the BBC guy who asked to use the picture though, Apple apparently don’t like you using a capital ‘T’ when referring to a certain iPod – so it’s iPod touch rather than iPod Touch. Looking back over my previous postings, I guess that’s me off Steve Jobs Christmas card list…
I’m not sure whether it’s because the BBC has been stung by the criticism over their handling of the Mac in relation iPlayer, or the official explanation which is that it’s the highest quality portable device, but yesterday the BBC launched the iPlayer for the iPhone and iPod Touch ahead of versions for any of the other more established mobile devices.
If you’ve not come across the service, BBC iPlayer is the catch-up service that allows computer users to watch programmes that have been shown on the BBC channels over the past seven days. There are two variations, a windows only download version using Windows Media Player, and a browser based streaming version using Adobe Flash.
The iPhone/iPod Touch version uses Quicktime instead, and although it runs off the web based version (as with the desktop version you just need to browse to http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/ using the iPhone/iPod Touch browser) the programmes don’t run within the browser but use the iPhone/iPod Touch Quicktime viewer.
The service is only available over a wi-fi connection – and when you see the quality of the picture you realise why. By way of an example, I’ve taken a couple of pictures of the episode of Eastenders that was shown last night. The first shot is of the opening titles, the familiar aerial shot of London, and then I’ve also taken a picture of a scene later on in the programme. The clarity of the pictures is really fantastic – when you compare it to the quality of image produced by some of the other attempts at mobile TV it is noticeably better, and certainly very watch-able. The quality hasn’t been traded at the expense of speed – there is no discernible sitting around and waiting – nor is it noticeably running at a reduced frame rate. You can also skip forward to later in the programme without any problem either – just touch the screen to bring up the controls and move the slider later in the programme.
The other thing to remember is this isn’t directly costing users anything either – if you use the iPhone you get free access to any Cloud wi-fi hotspots as part of the deal – and it’s free for iPod Touch users too thanks to the BBC Online deal for free access that was announced last year.
One of the biggest criticisms of the BBC iPlayer has been that the download service is Windows only – and limited to specific versions at that – ruling out licence payers using other platforms such as the Mac. Indeed I’ve blogged previously about the pressure that the BBC is under by the BBC Trust to get such a cross-platform solution.
The basic problem has always been that there wasn’t a solution that met the requirements – the ability to have programmes downloadable, but then only able to be watched for a week after the original showing, but was cross-platform. Windows Media DRM provided the functionality, but not the cross-platform support.
That all changed this week, with the Macworld Keynote. As part of that, Apple announced iTunes Movie Rentals. Although the lengths of time are different, the fundamental principle that the BBC required, that the programmes only be able to be watched for a limited period are there. When I was watching the keynote, the thought did cross my mind as to whether we’d find the BBC amongst the big film studios come the UK launch.
The announcement from Macworld about the effective relaunch of the AppleTV (Jobs: “we tried with AppleTV, but its not what people wanted. So we’re back with AppleTV take two – no computer is required”) is encouraging.
This, coupled with Apple’s (long anticipated) move to a rental model, means that we can look to getting BBC iPlayer onto this platform too, as we should be able to use the rental functionality to allow our programmes to be downloaded, free, but retained for a time window, and then erased, as our rightsholders currently insist.
Whilst it won’t reach Linux users, using iTunes would reach more users than the current solution – more than that, the programmes would be transferable from a computer, to an iPod, and could even be watched back on a TV using the Apple TV – giving an option for people without a suitable computer at all.
It was good to see that the BBC Trust are getting tough with the BBC over their iPlayer project. The BBC have said that they may not do a download service for anything other than PC’s, offering only a streaming service for other platforms. The BBC Trust have come back saying that iPlayer was only approved on condition that it was platform neutral – when asked if offering just video streaming across all platforms would fulfil the BBC Trust’s terms of approval for iPlayer, a spokesman for the regulators said: “We required platform neutrality across downloads, streaming and cable [set-top boxes].” Having said that, since the current iPlayer that the BBC Trust approved is heavily based on Windows Media Player the prospects of that ever being platform neutral always seemed minimal to me!