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Why is the iPlayer a multi million pound disaster?

Betting big, and betting wrong

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Beeb Week The story of the BBC's iPlayer is of a multi-million pound failure that took years to complete, and was designed for a world that never arrived. More was spent on the project than many Silicon Valley startups ever burn through, but only now can we begin to piece together how this disaster unfolded.

When the iPlayer was commissioned in 2003, it was just one baffling part of an ambitious £130m effort to digitise the Corporation's broadcasting and archive infrastructure. It's an often lamented fact that the BBC wiped hundreds of 1960s episodes of its era-defining music show Top of the Pops, including early Beatles performances, and many other popular programmes.

The scope of the restructure was welcomed: it would be hard for anyone who values the BBC's place in society to argue against preserving and making available the huge investment in quality programming by licence fee payers over the last 50 years.

The iPlayer was envisaged as the flagship internet "delivery platform". It would dole out this national treasure to us in a controlled manner, it was promised, and fire a revolution in how Big TV works online.

For better or worse it's finally set to be delivered with accompanying marketing blitz this Christmas - more than four years after it was first announced.

Babylonian

When the BBC embarked on its first concerted effort at delivering internet video - the service was called iMP - it included both download and streaming options. Fast-forward two years to 2005, and iMP has been rebranded iPlayer, and streaming had been inexplicably binned and several million pounds burned.

One experienced web developer, who wishes to remain anonymous, described the project to us at the height of its Babylonian excess. He painted a picture of mismanagement and spiralling costs.

"The disorganisation was incredible. It was clear to me that the management had lost track of where they wanted [iPlayer] to go," he told us.

"I can honestly say it was the biggest mess I've ever worked on. There were individual executives within the BBC who ran their part of the project as a personal fiefdom, yet wanted involvement in all outside decisions."

He left the huge iPlayer team as soon as his freelancer's contract allowed.

Another source explained how every content department affected demanded a say in the direction of the iPlayer, including meetings deciding low-level technical decisions. The project encompassed over 400 staff at its height.

"It was worse than Boo.com," said one source.

Senior technical staff at the BBC tell The Reg that today the iPlayer is better managed, and less bureaucratic, following a big reorganisation and injection of new blood over this summer. The download iPlayer remains as a festering reminder of years of bloat, however.

Clunky

According to new-media boss Ashley Highfield, spending on the iPlayer has now hit £4.5m. Meanwhile, a variety of streaming products are making the running in internet TV. They're more widely used, interoperable, and support more "platforms" - particularly mobile devices such as phones and iPods.

Today, YouTube, Joost and BT Vision deliver video on demand to millions using streaming and P2P techniques that are evolving rapidly. For a large proportion of the web viewing public even YouTube's poor quality video is good enough.

The iPlayer now looks like an anachronism; a clunky, proprietary client in a world where content producers of the Beeb's quality should be more powerful than ever and "platform" operators are beating a path to their door.

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