I popped across to the BBC iPlayer webpage last Thursday night, and discovered that the “soft launch” of iPlayer Beta had itself been soft launched a few hours ahead of the published Friday morning kick off. And about 24 hours later, the invitation email arrived with a username and password to access the iPlayer Beta website.
You need to know that iPlayer comes in two halves. There’s the (1) programme guide website. Clicking on the download link for a particular programme triggers the (2) PC client that actually downloads the requested programme (using a peer-to-peer scheme) and manages the DRM licences through Windows Media Player. (Channel 4’s VoD combines both these elements into their single Java client application.)
The issue of platform neutrality is one that is being addressed by the BBC and being monitored by the BBC Trust (see the results of the recent on-demand consultation). The Beeb are exploiting alternative cross-platform DRM solutions with Real Media, Adobe, Apple and perhaps others, while the Trust will audit progress every six months. I've lost the link, but there were rumours about Microsoft building a new DRM solution that would work across Apple/Linux/Windows operating systems as well as portable music/video devices. (Feel free to leave a comment with more info.)
Given the difficultly in categorising seven days of content across more than a handful of television channels, the programme browser user interface is pretty usable and could be a lot worse. However, there are areas ripe for improvement, including
- adding the ability to search across the entire seven days of programmes on a particular channel (rather than only being able to filter by channel on a single day);
- improving the page load performance (there can be a 1 second delay between clicking on a navigation button and the page schedule refreshing).
And be aware that there are classes of programme that won’t be appearing anytime soon for download, given the lack of digital download rights. So no films, no sport (hurrah!), no Welsh language (until 2008) and currently no UK news (given the lack of rights for some of the content). But be assured that Northern Ireland Questions from BBC Parliament make it onto the download list! So for anyone with poor or no digital terrestrial (Freeview) coverage, it’s not a bad way to catch up with some of the programmes you’re missing on BBC3/4.
Initial installation of the Windows client seemed to go well, and I managed to download a couple of programmes. However, when I tried to watch the downloaded shows, I got a licence error. A reboot of the PC made matters worse, bringing up repeated “Delivery Manager Service” Windows application errors indicating a problem with the kserver.exe Kontiki software. (It’s the part that shares your downloaded shows with other downloading users when your PC is online.)
A month or two ago, I’d installed Channel 4’s VoD client, and a quick scan of the iPlayer Messageboard suggests that there’s some sort of clash between the two installations. Uninstalling the BBC iPlayer software, then uninstalling Channel 4’s VoD, and then running the kclean.exe utility that you can pick up on the net to completely the Kontiki software. Oh, and just to be sure, a quick scan through the registry to remove any remaining references to kontiki. (Be confident you know what you’re doing before following my example.)
A reboot and reinstallation of the iPlayer client, and it all worked well. Phew.
Downloading some shows seem to be very slooooooow. Given the peer-to-peer nature of the downloading, it’s maybe not surprising that the less popular shows have fewer sites to download from, and it takes a bit longer. But Northern Ireland Questions took a lot longer than a West Wing episode to capture!
Overall it’s a good service. But remember it is Beta, and the bugs will need to be ironed out before the less technically savvy are encouraged to install the software. And unlike Channel 4’s VoD service, the BBC’s iPlayer catch-up service is free (well, covered by out licence fees).
If you’re not put off, you can leave your email address at the iPlayer Beta homepage, and you’ll get an invitation as they ramp up the numbers on the platform. (Note sure what the current delay is between applying and receiving an invitation with your username/password.)
A quick note on peer-to-peer (P2P). If you downloaded all the shows from a central server (like the current BBC Radio Listen-Again service, you end up with a network bottleneck as all the traffic converges on the broadcaster’s content servers. So the alternative is to download the shows you want from other people around the UK who have already downloaded them, picking up little sections of the programme from lots of people. From the BBC iPlayer help page on P2P ...
“The way P2P works means that while you download a programme or are simply online, you may also be helping upload parts of a programme file to other BBC iPlayer members. This can happen even if you’re not using BBC iPlayer and only stops if your computer isn’t online, if none of the programmes in your library are needed by other users on the network, or if all programmes have been deleted from your Library. As soon as you start to use your computer again, any uploads to others will stop. ... Some ISPs apply download and upload limits and may charge you if these are exceeded. Check with your ISP if you want to know more about limits and possible charges.”