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BBC mulls dropping Flash as iPlayer meets iPhone

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Updated The BBC is considering ditching Adobe's Flash system for its iPlayer streams to improve the video quality of the on-demand service, it said on Tuesday.

The news came alongside an announcement that iPlayer will be available on Apple iPhone and iPod Touch in the next few weeks. The move is unrelated to the BBC's commercial arm setting up shop on iTunes this week.

iPlayer availability on the iPhone will be via Wi-Fi only as O2's EDGE data network is too slow. However, the BBC has a deal with hotspot provider The Cloud to offer free access to bbc.co.uk and iPlayer.

The BBC's head of digital media technology, Anthony Rose, said the Apple devices would be the first of a wave of devices that people will be able to use to stream BBC shows on the move. The next platform iPlayer will be available on is Virgin Media set-top boxes at the end of March, however.

The new iPhone and iPod service means the BBC will transcode TV shows into the MPEG-4-based H.264 standard as well as Flash video format, used by the main web streaming site (FLV, commonly based on the older H.263 codec). Because H.264 is highly-compressed it could support the higher quality streams the BBC and users want, using existing broadband infrastructure.

Adobe's latest update to Flash includes support for H.264. The move was widely interpreted as an attempt to head off competition from Microsoft's new Silverlight project, which is focused on high definition streaming of Windows Media Video (WMV 9, based on the VC-1 standard, as used by Blu-ray discs). As well as Flash for the streams, the BBC also already uses WMV for the download application version of iPlayer.

The BBC's research division has also developed its own codec, the open source Dirac. A well-placed sopurce at the BBC told The Reg the project is under consideration for inclusion in iPlayer.

Rose, who is in charge of iPlayer development, said a decision on what format to use for the main iPlayer streaming service would be made this year. "We're looking at all options to provide best quality for the users and the lowest cost to us and the ISPs," he said.

Director of new media and technology Ashley Highfield said the impact of iPlayer on ISP networks has been "negligible", with traffic representing a "few per cent" of overall bandwidth.

The pair were on hand to promote new figures showing the growth of iPlayer since its Christmas day marketing launch, and introduce a series of changes to the web interface to make it easier to find shows.

Since launch, 2.2 million people have watched a total of 17 million programmes using iPlayer, BBC figures say. The busiest days have seen 500,000 viewers use the UK-only service.

On average, each show is seen online by about a tenth of the broadcast audience. The iPlayer top ten since the launch is heavy on male-oriented shows, including three episodes of Torchwood, a Six Nations rugby match, and Top Gear. The number one slot was taken by the Doctor Who Christmas special.

Streams still outnumber downloads by about eight to one, though that dominance is expected by Highfield to be reduced in coming months. About 70 per cent of downloads are watched, Rose said.

The iPlayer team is in very early development of a way to encourage download iPlayer users to use BBC Worldwide's upcoming commercial venture Project Kangaroo once the free 30-day viewing window is finished. Highfield said watchdogs at the BBC Trust are "very interested" in the plans. ®

Update

After this story was published yesterday the BBC got in touch to say it will always offer a Flash version, contrary to the comments made on Tuesday. Better quality is definitely on the cards, however, and we'll have an update at the end of March.

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