Why do we need the BBC iPlayer?

BBC OnlyI’m kinda really annoyed by BBC iPlayer. Not the technical execution, but the concept itself at the most basic level. Everyone’s complaining about the fact that it doesn’t work on Vista, or Mac, or Linux, or anything else except Windows XP, but…

Surely the real problem is that it only plays BBC content?

Imagine a TV that could only show Channel 5, or a radio that could only play Classic FM. In this age of open standards and digital convergence, doesn’t it seem odd that playback technologies are becoming more diverse, more closed and proprietary? Already we’ve had the Sky TV player, the Channel 4 player, the ITV player and others. Now we’re expected to install yet another DRM-infested “player”* just to play the output from a handful of BBC channels — no thanks.

I say “player” because it really isn’t one. Windows Media Player handles the playback for it. Come to mention it, Internet Explorer does the interactive bits, so what is this “player” beyond a nice looking website?

For years, tech journalists (the BBC’s included) have been predicting convergence between the PC and TV. Finally, in the past couple of years its started to happen. Loads of cheap, simple products have hit the market that allow us to stream digital / internet video to our TV’s… Apple TV, Linksys Kiss players, right down to tiny little 40 units like this one.

I’m a fan of Microsoft’s desktop OS’s, so I tried their entertainment system concept for a while. After spending hundreds of pounds on a Windows Media Center PC I found I just couldn’t live with it. Compared to real living room hardware like TiVo or Apple TV, a PC is noisy, power-hungry, clumsy and crashes far too often.

I love my Apple TV — it’s slient, has a great UI and is dead easy to use, but in the UK all I can watch is YouTube, the odd podcast and some (legal) BitTorrent downloads. So I’m stuck with the Media Centre PC, because the BBC say so. Because they will neither support alternative standards or open standards. Because they’re standing shoulder to shoulder with Microsoft and making technology a walled-garden misery for the rest of us.

Question: Why are they allowed to do this marketing exercise for Microsoft on my TV licence dollar???

The argument content providers like the BBC always put forward is the requirement for Digital Rights Management (DRM) — basically so that they can re-sell us the DVD box set after we’ve seen it on TV. DRM is a mad argument, and organisations like the BBC need to wake up to the reality:

  1. DRM doesn’t work. Until you work out a way to embed decryption chips into our eyes and ears, content must be DRM free at the point of use, plain and simple fact. If you make it DRM free there, in peoples homes, then you might as well not apply the DRM in the first place — if I can see it on my TV I can record it onto my DVD recorder, my Media Centre PC, my TiVo or whatever I like. Please…. stop pissing about with DRM. It’s a miserable failure.
  2. If you’re so into protecting your rights, why do you broadcast PDC signals? For over a decade, the BBC have broadcast Programme Delivery Control signals with their TV programmes. These signals tell your VCR/DVR/DVD-R when to start and stop recording, ensuring you get a perfect ‘rip’ of the TV show. Why are you actively facilitating this form of digital copying on broadcast TV whilst bending over backwards to block any potential ‘misuse’ of your online content? Why different rules for us online folks Mr/Ms BBC????

Finally, if you swallow the corporate pill and decide that DRM is a good thing, that Microsoft is your only friend, and that the public actually wants to watch the BBC in a crippled online player, then one question remains….

Why do we need the iPlayer interface at all?

Windows Media Centre, for all its faults, has a decent interface that can be easily navigated by remote control from around 10 feet — the typical distance a user is from their PC-connected TV. Why on earth did the BBC feel the need to reinvent the wheel and produce their own “player” interface? If you’re in bed with Microsoft anyway, why not just use their tried and tested interface?

The cynical side of me says that the TV networks want fragmentation and confusion. They don’t want online TV to succeed because it levels the playing field with the little guy. What better way to ensure that online TV never takes off than to spend 4 years developing a crippled player that nobody wants? Demonstrate there’s no market for it, then go back to what you’re comfortable with — broadcast media with it’s nice, high barriers to entry.

Footnote: I posted a watered down version of my comments to the BBC news story about the iPlayer. They ‘moderated’ my comments out of existence. Clearly they didn’t get too much positive feedback, as there are no comments at all on the story around 18 hrs after publication. If you feel strongly about this I suggest you do the same. Save a copy, then when you don’t get it published by the BBC paste it in as a comment here.