Networking

Cheat Sheet: BBC iPlayer

Get the lowdown on Auntie's biggest online endeavour

Is this another one of those shiny Apple gadgets from Cupertino?
Not quite. iPlayer is actually the BBC's online on-demand TV service.

Tell me more…
Well users can download or stream BBC content broadcast during the preceding seven days and watch it on their computers. And it's free to use, which you would obviously expect from the Beeb.

How long's it been around?
Well, the service first appeared back in summer 2007 when the download version was released in beta form. During the latter half of the year, more people started using the service and it received a full marketing launch on Christmas Day - which was also when the streaming version of the service went live.

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Any clever tech?
iPlayer uses peer-to-peer technology for the download service, allowing content to be downloaded from the nearest point in the network, meaning not all content has to come directly from BBC servers.

Is it popular?
It certainly is. During the first seven weeks of the streaming version being available, 17 million programmes were streamed or downloaded and it recently broke through the 500,000 barrier for streamed or downloaded programmes in a single day.

In January alone, around 2.2 million people used iPlayer with 11 million TV programmes being viewed and 15.9 million radio downloads made.

Why is the BBC doing this?
The BBC is working hard to build up its online and digital presence and iPlayer plays a major part in this. Illustrating the corporation's commitment, during the past year the Beeb has signed deals with IBM, YouTube and Apple's iTunes, to name but a few. It also recently announced it's collaborating with ITV and Channel 4 on a shared on-demand TV service called Kangaroo.

And the responsibility for all of this falls on the shoulders of the BBC's head of Future Media and Technology unit, Ashley Highfield. Reflecting the importance of this work, Highfield was voted number five in silicon.com's tech industry Agenda Setters list in 2007.

Highfield has certainly had his work cut out with iPlayer as it has attracted a surprising amount of criticism.

BBC iPlayer: all the coverage

♦  BBC signs up with iTunes

♦  BBC's iPlayer is go

♦  BBC iPlayer sparks broadband row

♦  16,000 back iPlayer petition

♦  Leader: Time for a ceasefire in iPlayer row

♦  BBC tech chief hits back at iPlayer critics

♦  Open sourcers welcome BBC iPlayer for Linux

♦ BBC iPlayer gets 3.5 million hits

♦ Is online TV throttling broadband networks?

♦ iPlayer: Download version coming to Macs

How so?
There have been a couple of issues. The first is that when the download version of iPlayer initially came out, it only worked on Microsoft Windows XP. A number of groups were unhappy about this, arguing it excluded a significant group of people not using XP.

The Open Source Consortium was one of the main critics while an e-petition posted on the 10 Downing Street website about the issue attracted more than 16,000 signatures.

So what's the BBC doing about it?
The BBC has consistently said it wants to offer a multiplatform iPlayer and has already made the download version compatible with Vista with a Mac version promised by the end of 2008. The streaming version was compatible with Macs and Linux as well as the Microsoft platforms right from its launch.

You said there were two issues…
That's right. There has also been concern expressed about the sheer volume of traffic that iPlayer will ultimately generate which some fear could cripple broadband networks. Tiscali suggested content producers like the BBC should fork out to fund broadband network upgrades to stop this happening.

Although these fears seem exaggerated at the moment, industry regulator Ofcom has said there is the possibility that the ISP-content provider business model may need to change in the future to fund the huge growth in digital content.

What's next for iPlayer?
Aside from the work to make the download version compatible with Macs, the BBC also has plans to broaden access even further, making it available on the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch.

And the iPlayer website has recently had a facelift to add extra functionality, such as the 10 most popular programmes, Last Chance - for programmes about to expire - and Recently Added, which is updated every 10 minutes. A subtitle service is currently being rolled out as well.

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