The BBC iPlayer has been released as a free application on the Apple iPad, with another version for Android devices, although for rights reasons both of these will work only for users within the United Kingdom. A global version of the BBC iPlayer for the iPad is in development. A media conference to announce the launch of the app was cancelled, apparently after an enthusiastic engineer leaked the news. However, not all Apple or Android users are happy.
No doubt the BBC iPlayer app will be welcomed by many iPad owners, as the downloadable application offers a smoother user experience than the HTML version that has been available since June 2010, based on the “Bigscreen” version for network connected television devices and displays.
However, it raises some interesting questions in the light of the draft syndication policy that the BBC Trust published in January. This concluded that the BBC should make its public service television programmes available on demand exclusively through the BBC iPlayer in standard application formats, initially HTML, Flash and MHEG.
So why has the BBC invested in the development of a dedicated application for the Apple iPad? Could it be because BBC Worldwide, its commercial arm, is planning to release a commercial version of the BBC iPlayer, initially on the Apple iPad?
The BBC policy appears highly inconsistent. On the one hand, the BBC Trust, on the recommendation of its management, has concluded that the BBC iPlayer should only be made available to third parties in standard formats. On the other hand, the BBC feels free to develop dedicated applications for particular platforms when it suits their interests and their commercial objectives.
The BBC Trust did invite responses to its syndication policy, but the consultation closed on 9 February. Coincidentally, that was the day before it released the BBC iPlayer iPad app.
Curiously, the BBC also cancelled a scheduled media launch, apparently after an enthusiastic engineer tweeted the news in advance. He also helpfully announced that a version would be available in the United States in June. He suggested that it could take advantage of the higher resolution of the next, as yet unannounced, version of the iPad.
The iPlayer app on the iPad looks great, although has some surprising usability issues. It is possible to stream live programmes, but only by clicking on a particular programme in the channel schedule view. It is not possible to change channels simply by clicking on a channel as one might expect.
As yet, it is not possible to use the new Apple AirPlay feature to view programmes on a display connected to an Apple TV. The application is only available for the iPad, not the smaller screen of the much more widely deployed iPhone or iPod Touch. The Android version requires version 2.2 with Adobe Flash 10.1, so it will only work with more recent devices. The reason for this seems primarily in order to support secure streaming.
More significantly, programmes can only be streamed over a WiFi connection. It is not possible to download previous programmes for later offline viewing, say on a train or plane. Anyone that really wants to do that can probably find their own solution, or they could simply use a laptop, which does allow downloads. Given that Apple makes recent release movies available for download it is clearly not a technical limitation of digital rights management. More likely it is a commercial limitation from Apple, which would prefer that people download media through iTunes.
Daniel Danker, the general manager of future media and technology at the BBC, said: “Having stuck our toe in the water last year with the iPad (initially, we quickly repurposed our big screen version), this new native app is a significant improvement on the existing experience and it’s great to be on the Android platform too. Our intention is to be on as many devices and platforms as possible.”
While the BBC iPlayer iPad app is a welcome addition, the comments in response from many of the more technically informed users suggest that the policies of the BBC in supporting different platforms are increasingly inconsistently applied and becoming more difficult to defend.