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Tuesday, 7 August 2007


iPlayer Conclusions

Of course, any conclusions now are based on the current beta so if you are looking back on this article in a year's time, don't be surprised to find that what I say is now horribly out of date.

The BBC's service is very limited. It is riddled with compromises which detract from the end result and it's Kontiki P2P delivery is both a source of inefficiency and controversy.

And yet it is a start. A walk of a thousand miles and all that, but by taking the leap and putting the bulk of its programming on the internet, the BBC has opened a range of opportunities for the development of the service.

Kontiki's P2P is really not very good. It was very disorganised in comparison to Joost, which makes iPlayer and 4oD downloads slow to start and traces look a bit like kids bickering in the playground. I will be keeping an eye on peer hit ratios and will report back periodically on those as it is too early to draw firm conclusions on the amount of traffic that the BBC is offloading onto peers. But for now, talk is of underhand tactics.

Underhand? Yes - absolutely. My iPlayer is closed in the taskbar and yet kservice.exe is still running according to my task manager (Ctr+Alt+Del, Processes). Does it matter? Not to me as I don't pay for my upload but ever since I installed and tested 4oD I have experienced a significant increase in used upload capacity. If I was a cable customer, the extra bandwidth used on the coax might degrade everything for me and for my neighbours.

I deliberately slotted the Arootz article in the middle of this iPlayer articles because in that concept you can see how the BBC may be able to do it differently - multicasting to storage. If the BBC are committed to Kontiki, then they all have their work cut out.

As a user application, the iPlayer is inferior even to its 4oD stablemate because of the strange disconnection between where you select the programme - the web - and the application you actually view it on - the iPlayer itself.

It is all very different from Joost, Babelgum, VeohTV or YouTube. Those services are for live entertainment. The iPlayer is not - it is a catchup download service where you have to wait to watch what you want. The lack of progressive streaming is a big shortfall.

The addition of progressive streaming would make the service feel a lot more like TV. Furthermore, it would open the door to further development of the client software onto set top boxes, freeing the service of the chains that currently attach it to the PC.

I am not saying that the BBC is wrong to offer catchup downloads. It is a part of the product set that they want to end up with. Perhaps it is the low hanging fruit, but the final solution also needs to replicate and add value to the core broadcast model. Here too, there is work to be done.

Catchup Downloads has a number of avenues for development too. The capability will be very important in mobile TV where the cellular networks are simply too immature to offer anything like an acceptable experience for streamed services. Here, latent demand for mobile TV can be met by bridging the mobile handset and the broadband network, sideloading the media onto the device while the user sleeps. The iPlayer's current design provides this as a further development option, if nothing else.

But all is not lost - and that's why I issued the word of caution in the opening paragraph. As a service to me as a license fee payer, it is very good simply because it's got BBC programmes on it and not Channel 4s, Joost's, Babelgum's or Veoh's. It's attractiveness is directly proportional to the BARB figures which show the BBCs average viewing (for June) at 7 hours 24 mins against Channel 4's 2 hours 15 minutes.

In my service review, I wondered whether content was really king, and I think on reflection it is. What I think I've learned is that the application and the distribution network play a vital role in the shadows, they are the king-makers...

The BBCs royal aspirations are still alive and well after this release, but they really need to think about the people they are surrounding themselves with and whether they can get to where they want to be with the baggage they are carrying. I'm not just referring to Kontiki, the BBC is also weighed down by beaurocracy and that too is severely limiting the service.

If the BBC is serious about IP as a distribution technology for TV, and I believe they are, they need to evolve to a point where they simultaneously broadcast and offer up for time-limited storage their entire portfolio of programming. Quite what value they are creating by doing so is an interesting question given their unique commercial status - for competitors, the benefit is targeted adverts - but what does the iPlayer add economically? Something for another day perhaps...

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