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BBC iPlayer to run on iPads. Eventually

'We're not wedded to Flash'

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Yesterday the BBC announced version 3 of its iPlayer catch-up service, which allows viewers to stream programmes for up to seven days following their initial broadcast, or to download them to keep for up to 30 days on supported platforms.

The new version adds social media integration, linking to Facebook, Twitter and Windows Live Messenger. But with Apple about to launch its "magical" iPad in the UK, what are the prospects for BBC iPlayer? The download version of iPlayer uses Adobe's AIR runtime, based on Flash, which Apple disallows on the iPhone and iPad.

"We're not wedded to Flash. Let's be really clear about that," said Erik Huggers, Director of BBC Future Media and Technology. "Having over 25 devices out there for BBC iPlayer means we are quite flexible about the technologies we use to get our service out to consumers. Not all of our services are powered by Flash. The iPad is a very interesting device, the screen size is right, the battery life is right, and we will make iPlayer services available."

So will the BBC make an iPad app that will support offline viewing? The first snag is that the BBC Trust, charged with getting the best out of the BBC for licence payers, has put plans for applications on hold while it reviews whether they fit with the BBC's remit. "There's two ways to get onto the iPad. One is through the browser. The other one is through a dedicated application. The BBC Trust has decided that it wants to take a look at the BBC's plans for applications in general. That is within the gift of the BBC Trust to decide. But through the browser we will absolutely make iPlayer available on the iPad."

Does it make sense for BBC Trust to support iPlayer through the browser, but not through an app, even though an application already exists for Windows, Mac and Linux? Huggers lets slip his frustration. "I have to wait for the BBC Trust on whether or not it believes we can play in the app space. I certainly believe that we should be able to do that, because it is offering access to exactly the same service but through a different means."

Anthony Rose, who has been responsible for iPlayer development but is soon to leave the BBC, says there are also content protection issues. "For downloads you need to have rights management to limit the time availability. To do that you need DRM. The only DRM that works on Apple devices is Apple DRM which is a closed system. So for downloads, they are off limits for the moment. But for streaming there should be no problem."

At one time the BBC simply removed content protection for iPhone connections, but Rose says that is not always the case and will not happen on the iPad. "Sometimes we play out using RTMP, sometimes we use SSL, sometimes we use HTTP. It depends on the resolution of the content. On low resolution mobile devices, as with an iPhone, you sometimes don't need protection. As you get to higher resolution ones, you do. On iPad we're likely to use SSL based streaming."

What about Google TV, announced at the recent Google I/O conference, which also promises to integrate social media and broadcasting? Huggers calls it "an interesting new product that shows the level of competition in the marketplace ... I see Google TV, if it gets successful, as a fantastic receiver for BBC services. We want to make our content, our services, available on a platform-neutral basis. If Google TV succeeds, if consumers love it, we'll be there."

Even Google's WebM project gets a guarded welcome. "Whether we adopt it or not is too early to say. What I will say is that I'm sure that our R&D group will be looking into it. I think it is a bold move by Google, to acquire a proprietary codec, the VP8 codec from On2, and to open source the whole thing. It is probably what is needed for the industry to drive broader adoption, across all platforms, of high quality video consumption."

BBC iPlayer also works on games consoles, including Sony Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii, but not Microsoft's Xbox 360. The issue here is not technical, but that the BBC and Microsoft cannot agree terms. It seems that Microsoft is less cooperative than Sony and Nintendo. "Discussions continue with Microsoft," says Rose. "It all comes down to the tiering packages, do people need to pay to access it, is it inside a different Microsoft environment or is it the iPlayer?" Don't hold your breath. ®

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