Monday, 16 January 2006

BBC: iMP MyBBCPlayer free downloads - key issues

FURTHER UPDATE: on how to sign up for the public iPlayer trials, and for screenshots and a video of iPlayer in action, see
this post.

UPDATE: free download of BBC TV programmes, for a limited period after initial broadcast, should be with us in May or June 2007 via the new BBC iPlayer - with UK-based computers, anyway. See this post.

I've been participating in the limited trial of the BBC's iMP or MyBBCPlayer, where you can download and replay certain BBC programmes for free up to a week after the broadcast. Previously I gave my initial thoughts plus some detailed tips and tricks on MyBBCPlayer.

This post sets out what I feel are the most important barriers to mass take up of iMP, which in my view the BBC must address if they want iMP to be a success:
  • how and where - playback on TV or portable devices (PMPs, smartphones etc)
  • what - the content
  • when - expiry/timing restrictions, life's realities and DRM (digital rights management)
  • finding the stuff - the programme guide's design and usability.

Playback on TV and other devices

The BBC's Listen Again for radio programmes (playback within 7 days after broadcast) has been very popular, and their audio podcasts and MP3 downloads have gone down well too (see this post). Common feature: they're audio. It doesn't matter hugely where the sound comes from as long as you can hear it and the sound quality's decent, and you can have it playing in the background while you do other things.

Video is different. It requires more direct attention, people don't multitask so much while watching TV. Particularly if it's a DVD you've rented, a missed show you've downloaded, something you've actively sought out, you will want to be able to watch it properly. Watching video's often more social than listening to radio (catching a programme with your mates on a sofa via a widescreen TV beats crowding round a monitor, even a large one, standing up all the way through the whole show). And how you are able to watch video, where the video can be displayed, matters much more than with radio.

What all this means is that easy playback of downloaded shows on a proper TV is essential. At best there should be a set top box. But as a bare minimum, very clear and simple instructions on how to get the replayed program to display on your TV, and a list of compatible gear to buy, will be crucial for the vast majority of people who just aren't AV or computer techies. People would I'm sure be willing to buy a set top box for the purpose (provided of course the other issues like content etc, see below, are addressed properly). And indeed on the iMP forum BBC staff have mentioned trials with digital media receivers to transmit downloaded programmes wirelessly to the TV. So clearly they're aware of that key point - and I personally believe that for the vast majority of people who are not geeks, it will be a critical issue.

Providing a choice of options for watching is also important, and it's laudable that the trial has permitted downloads of mobile versions to be transferred to certain mobile devices (Orange SPV c500 only in this trial, with Windows Mobile 5.0 Windows Media Player 9 or above) and hopefully they're extending this to other mobiles, PDAs and personal media players (PMPs) generally, Windows Media Centre etc. Further flexibility in copying and transferring would be even better, but that's straying into digital rights management (DRM) territory, see below.

Available content

So far, to be honest I've not watched much via iMP. The concept is great but not being able to playback programmes on my TV is off putting. However, a bigger reason why I've not used it as much as I'd hoped is simply that there's not been much on there that I've wanted to watch.

I know the BBC is trying hard to negotiate with a zillion rights holders for permission to offer their programmes for replay. It can't be easy. But if too many rights holders refuse, then that could really scupper the future of iMP. What's the point of developing the means of delivery when the content is such that not enough people will want to watch it to make it all worth it?

What about the BBC's archive of classic shows? Wouldn't it be more in keeping with its public service remit if licence fee payers could re-watch those shows by downloading them? And why don't Channel 4 and Channel 5 allow replay of their broadcasts too? I watch programmes on those channels more than on the BBC, these days. I know they will have even more difficulty getting the rights to do that e.g. for Lost, but the more who ask for it, perhaps the greater the chance that it will happen one day.

The availability of content that people actually want to watch is clearly going to be another big issue.

Expiry restrictions, realities and DRM (digital rights management)

One major bugbear is that you can only replay a programme within 7 days after its original broadcast. After that, tough luck - it's expired and the in-built digital rights management system stops any replay.

It's the same for radio's Listen Again, but somehow it's more of a problem with me than for radio - maybe because I watch a lot more TV, so being able to catch up on a missed show matters more to me than with radio. Plus TV programmes are often longer than radio programmes, so you need a bigger time window in which to be able to watch a replay - and having to find that time window in just 7 days when you already lead a busy life (which is probably why you missed the programme in the first place!) is simply harder than if you had say 2 weeks to watch it in. And if you are on a 2 week holiday you won't be able to replay something broadcast during the first week, too bad.

Personally I see no point in the 7 day limit. If I got my act together enough to program in advance a recording of a show on my VCR or, more likely, PVR (personal video recorder), I'd be able to replay it anytime I like. And I could keep the recording for as long as I liked and even replay it again. Recordings can be made to DVD now, or to hard drive then archived to DVD. Even digital recordings from Freeview. So the 7 day restriction is in fact a backward step, especially as there are moves now in other quarters to provide video on demand regardless of when the broadcast date was (e.g. AOL's In2TV which will allow download of classic TV shows), and BT's plans from autumn 2006, to offer "...a vast range of on-demand film, music and television programming…" to provide "...BT customers nationwide with choice, convenience and control over their home entertainment without the need to commit to expensive monthly subscriptions… straight to their TV" (Philips will supply a set top box to deliver these high definition services and the software platform will be Microsoft TV IPTV Edition).

Presumably it's the rights holders again insisting on the 7 day "self-destruct", but it really serves no useful purpose to them as far as I can see, given that people could much more easily record the live programme on Freeview and, yes, pirate that if they want (I suspect those who buy pirated stuff wouldn't hugely care about the difference between a digital recording off Freeview and a copy of an iMP downloaded file). Sure, maybe the iMP video quality is better (I haven't looked into that, though I seriously doubt it's vastly better or, more to the point, that people would care that much), but I've seen comments on the iMP message boards that it's not difficult for hackers to crack the protection and copy the downloaded shows, 7 day limit or no (they can just do it on day 1, can't they). So the limit doesn't really stop bad hackers, it just makes life a lot harder for the rest of us.

Why not make it 14 days? Or make it 7 days after, not the broadcast date, but the date the user first tries to replay it or the "licence acquistion" date (e.g. give the users 7 days after they get back from holiday, even if it's more than 7 days after the broadcast date). Surely that would be the most sensible compromise, if the rights holders insist on clinging to the false security blanket of some definite expiration/self-destruct limit.

More on digital rights management: VCRs didn't kill off the film or TV industry, in fact they provided an extra and lucrative source of revenue. Same with DVDs, including recordable DVDs. So why not provide downloaded iMP files which don't self-destruct, in common non-protected formats, which users can easily transfer to their portable devices to watch when and where they wish? It's the same argument: call me cynical, but bad hackers and organised crime will I suspect have little trouble cracking the protection anyway. All that those restrictions really do is make life much harder for law-abiding consumers who've paid their TV licence fees.

(As an aside, it's the same with introducing ID cards associated with computerised personal data - they'll make life more difficult for law-abiding citizens and grossly compromise our privacy and security by collecting our personal information in one handy place for criminals like identity thieves to break into, while barely deterring terrorists and mobsters who have easy access to top forgers and black hat hackers.)

Finding the stuff

Obviously even if they improve the content available it's no good if the interface to enable you to book downloads is buggy, or you can't easily find stuff to download. The iMP TV/radio guide interface looks nice but doesn't work very well yet in terms of user-friendliness. Of course, that's a major reason why there are trials. I've gone into detail on some of the issues I've encountered in my previous post.

It should use a standard interface with proper visible menus, Back and Forward buttons, conventionally resizeable windows etc (see my my previous post). The search box should be on the main page like Home and Guide rather than (or as well as) on a separate tab, there's certainly space for one on the left. It’s also supposed to search just the programme name, but I've found it searches the description too - it would be good to have the choice of searching either or both. And when searching I'd like to be able to specify just radio, or just TV.

Searching for a show whose name you already know usually works, but it's less easy trying to browse for e.g. films, as mentioned in my previous post. It needs to have much better filtering when users click Next or Previous. Sorting by clicking a column heading would be nice, you can't at the moment. Other navigation issues: if you rightclick the iMP icon in the system tray and choose the "Open your programmes" menu item, I feel it should go to the "Your downloads" tab (i.e. the programmes you've downloaded) by default - otherwise it isn't "YOUR programmes", is it??

I also have other design or usability niggles like the unnecessary popup which you then have to close saying "No scheduled programmes available for selected day" - I can tell that from the lack of anything in the search results! I have other usability quibbles, e.g. to get more info about a programme you have to click the "All" button under Series (rather than a button labelled "Info") - not at all intuitive; and a "Today" button for orientation would be nice. An indication on the Downloads page of the date when downloaded programmes expire would really help; yes you can calculate that from the Broadcast column but an Expiry Date column would be more user-friendly.

A major issue is that it still sometimes doesn't work properly. For instance one of the shows in their email newsletter to triallists wasn't visible for the day and channel it was supposed to be showing on, yet when I did a search it appeared. I'd also add that there are still bugs to be ironed out, e.g. error messages like "You have exceeded the disk space allocated" (when I've hardly downloaded anything and gave it loads of space), and the more cryptic (I spare you the details) "An error has occurred in the script on this page", "Delivery error", etc.

In terms of speed, surely some downloading in the background of some of the pages would help. I'm on 2 MB broadband and using the programme guide still quite slow. And there are other issues like user control (lack of option to NOT load iMP automatically at startup if the user doesn't want to). I would love full keyboard shortcuts. Plus, wouldn't it be great if you could rightclick a programme and have a "Share this" or "Email this" option, to email a "link" to the programme to a friend to suggest they download that programme too?

The ideal to me would be a full TV-guide style interface with a timetable view showing times/channels (rather than alphabetically by programme name as it is now), like a paper TV guide, or like Digiguide's electronic TV/radio guide, which I've subscribed to since I first tried it. Why can't the BBC do a deal with Digiguide to integrate iMP downloads with Digiguide's brilliant guide, which is so much more user-friendly and powerful, and indeed mature and tested, having been known to work properly for years now? Or get a special BBC-only version of Digiguide just for iMP which they can then provide for licence fee payers to download? Say a rightclick to download a show, automatic downloading of shows matching a particular search, etc? We can but dream...


So, overall, I think the BBC are to be applauded for their efforts to bring TV broadcasting into the 21st century (and their website is excellent - I feel that broadcasting, whether via traditional means or the Net, and the complementary information they provide on their website, clearly should be within their remit). However, much more thought and work are needed to make the venture worthwhile, and in particular I hope they will free themselves from the shackles of 20th century thinking, or perhaps more accurately drag the rights holders kicking and screaming into the 21st century. They have a great opportunity here, and if they remember that empowering users is the key, giving increasingly time-poor consumers the freedom and flexibility to choose the what, when, where and how of TV replay for themselves, then MyBBCPlayer could really take off - especially if channels like Channel 4 and Channel 5 also provide replay facilities.

UPDATE: free download of BBC TV programmes, for a limited period after initial broadcast, should be with us in May or June 2007 via the new BBC iPlayer - with UK-based computers, anyway. See this post.

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Anonymous said...

Another in-depth review Imp, nice stuff. If only I lived in the UK. ;-)

For my personal needs, downloading any program (or programme if we're staying with the Queen's spelling) off the internet just ain't gonna cut it. I'm stuck on dialup (strike one) which means it ain't happening, but more importantly the issue you bring up of content...I heard when AOL launched their service you can download copies of "I Love Lucy"...oh yeah. That's what I want..reruns of shows broadcast continually for the last 50 years.

I understand iTunes is offering more downloads of current TV Shows(I assume mostly U.S) but paying for them? well I'm way too cheap for that.

The life changer (as far as TV watching) for me has been my satellite providers digital video recorder. $5 a month (for the 'rental') and it's completely changed the way I watch tv. Setup the recordings and they are there, happily waiting for me to get a chance to watch them. I almost never watch "live" tv (except maybe sports/news) and the rest of the time I'm watching recorded shows. Fantastic.

Of course their setup doesn't allow for transferring to other devices except they have recently introduced their own portable video device (pocketDish player) that they can be transferred to. I'm never in a situation where I want to watch TV on a 4 inch screen, but I suppose some people do.

It will be interesting to see how these video schemes will mature, as more people get broadband(hopefully me) and how they will eventually work out DRM and content availability issues. Will the more current content be a pay as you go, or move to more subscription based services? Like you point out, people are used to getting 'everything', anything less will be a niche.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, excellent blog again. You make some excellent points, especially regarding DRM and the 7 day limit. I always enjoy reading your blog, though I don't always comment. Well done.


Improbulus said...

Hey Kirk, just as well you don't live in the UK, you'd never get any peace and quiet!

But yeah content is king & all that, I'm tempted to switch back to BT just for the video on demand, I'd actually be quite happy to pay for what I'd like to see without having to traipse out to the video store. Not so much TV as films.

I totally agree about the DVR. I've got ahem more than one let's say. I'm planning a review of the latest, a Topfield, soon. I hardly ever watch live too.

For TV at least, it would be great if they moved to ad-supported and free like In2TV. I'm OK with pay as you go for film if I don't have to pay a monthly sub, like the BT plan.

Chris, thanks for your comments again, it's always nice to have feedback (especially good feedback!). Are you trialling iMP yourself?

Anonymous said...

I'd say the biggest issue for a lot of people, and one that you don't mention, is that the live service cannot use Windows Media DRM without alienating a growing segment of home computer users. Windows DRM isn't available on either the Mac or Linux machines, and although you could say that the percentage of the users of these platforms make them irrelevant, usage of the Mac in particular amongst home users is a lot higher than the oft-quoted 3%, and is possibly as high as 20% in London. Either the BBC need their own cross-platfrom DRM or they need to use the one built into RealPlayer, which works on all home operating systems.

Improbulus said...

Thanks for your comment Anon.

I didn't mention lack of Mac or Linux support because the BBC said in their FAQ on iMP (which annoyingly they've taken down since their trial ended) that "Should the [MyBBCPlayer/iMP] service be approved, we aim to make it accessible for different platforms, like Macintosh and Linux. Our suppliers are currently working towards this." See my initial review of BBC iMP.

So they do realise it's an issue and clearly want to address it already - hence I didn't feel it necessary to mention anything more about it.

Anonymous said...

with the bbc programs being paid for by all licence payers this service must not force people who want to use it to buy windows!!!

Improbulus said...

Well Anon as I said in my reply in just the previous comment, the BBC plan to provide Mac and Linux support, so I do think they're trying to make the service more generally accessible.