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What tricks is the BBC up to with Microsoft?

Conspiracy, iPlayer, and DRM

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End game The BBC iPlayer has been a hot topic on everyone's lips. It's late, doesn't work very well yet, presents some ISPs with big economic problems, and is limited to Windows XP users running Internet Explorer.

That last point has proven particularly sticky for the Beeb's spinners in the last few weeks, but in reality reveals as much about Microsoft's plans for DRM as it does about any supposed "corruption" of the BBC by some Gates-backed Sith.

The pledge

On Tuesday, some of the keener elements of the free software community showed up at BBC Television Centre to accuse the venerable institution of bending over to the Microsoft Evil Empire. The Open Source Consortium (OSC) has pursued the BBC in less unseemly fashion over the past few months, and finally made some progress when it met with Ofcom.

The broadcasting regulator had already provided the corporation's independent governing body, the BBC Trust, with its Market Impact Assessment, but gave the OSC's concerns enough credence to lobby trustees to meet the group.

At that meeting the trust again gave its backing to a multi-platform iPlayer, and repeated its commitment to review the project's progress every six months. Another meeting should be held between the OSC and BBC management, the watchdog said.

Multiple sources involved in the iPlayer tell us the project's management are a difficult bunch to get hold of, but the OSC has now scheduled a meeting for 9 October with, among others, the BBC's internet controller Tony Ageh.

Which is laudable commitment to a cause from the OSC. But here's what the BBC will tell them: we're working on it, and we aim to have a multi-platform on demand service inside two years. It's been the corporation line since the Microsoft-only iPlayer got the greenlight in April.

The twin elephants in the meeting room will be Microsoft's Silverlight and PlayReady.

The turn

Silverlight is Microsoft's new browser runtime environment (RTE) for interactive content and streamed or downloaded media. It's set to go head-to-head with Adobe's Flash and with elements of AJAX for web developers' attentions. There's currently a release candidate for version 1.0 that, as of last week, is being by used Major League Baseball for interactive video in its first major deployment.

The RTE supports XP, Vista, and Mac OSX, and the open source Mono project is working on a Linux port called Moonlight. Redmond has the browser plug-in side of Silverlight's interoperability covered: it's being released for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Opera.

Once all those potential combinations of OS and browser have the same RTE for web video, Microsoft and the BBC will need a functioning DRM system to, as they see it, protect the rights of producers.

PlayReady is a new DRM wrapper that will supercede the broken Windows Media DRM. It was announced at last year's 3GSM phone show in Barcelona with a heavy mobile spin on it. In truth, it's Microsoft's last throw of the DRM dice across all platforms: a more flexible system which allows time-bombing, pay-per-view, rental, and sideloading under one software umbrella. PlayReady's happy to wrap around WMA, WMV, AAC, H.264 (MPEG-4), and a bunch of as-yet-unannounced formats. And it's backward compatible with Windows Media DRM-encumbered files.

PlayReady is an example of what new media tosspots are calling super-distribution, although super might be a generous description for technology that at best will let normal people do what they used to do when they just had a TV and VCR.

Microsoft made no mention of desktop implementations of the PlayReady DRM at 3GSM, but sources say it is currently working on interoperable technology with UK broadcasters under non-disclosure agreements. We can be damn-near sure it's the PlayReady-Silverlight doubleteam which Microsoft has acknowledged in its forums here.

The prestige

Leaving aside anti-DRM militancy (yes it's a broken technology, yes it only affects people who play by the rules, blah, blah, blah), by slapping Silverlight and PlayReady together Microsoft will have a solution to the BBC's interoperability problems. Support for PlayReady is being built into Silverlight version 1.1, currently in alpha. It's rumoured an early 2008 release is on the cards, so in plenty of time for the BBC to meet its "within two years" target for a cross-platform iPlayer.

So if we're talking about value for the license-paying public, the BBC seems to have done a good deal in the medium term. Once the teething problems are sorted and Silverlight installed in browsers it should offer ubiquitous on demand access to its shows across mobile devices, operating systems, and set-top boxes.

The impact on the market is another question. Microsoft has implicit backing for its technology from the world's largest producer of quality television, which happens to be a public organisation. The OSC will have to consider whether to go through with its threat to take the matter to EU competition watchdogs once it's met BBC management next month. ®

Epilogue

There's a potential twist to all this. A well-placed little birdie tells us that Microsoft will spin-out PlayReady into a separate company in the not-too distant future. Sounds eminently plausible to us, but Microsoft UK tells us that it doesn't comment on "rumours and speculation".

We know the same isn't true of Reg readers, so click here if you've got anything to add to that nugget. ®

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