Why is the iPlayer a multi million pound disaster?
Betting big, and betting wrong
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.
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.
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.
As it turns out, the Beeb itself has proved that making shows available with streaming solution would have been cheaper and quicker to develop. The Flash player catch-up service cobbled together in response to Mac and Linux iPlayer interoperabilty gripes took just a few months.
Before we examine why a download "platform" was wrong, we want to make it clear we're not making a happy-clappy anti-DRM argument against the iPlayer. The BBC has unshakeable obligations to producers who spend vast sums on the expensive telly-making process.
Downloads take time and build up certain expectations. Anyone prepared to wait for a download of their favourite programme to finish before they can watch it, expects it to last longer than 30 days - or however long it takes for the DRM to disable the file.
PC users who have become accustomed to using BitTorrent as a main source of TV aren't interested in iPlayer's lower resolution encoding.
And in the real mass market, most licence-fee payers won't be enamoured to learn that the iPlayer's Kontiki P2P system is distributing programming on the BBC's behalf - via their bandwidth. For the average consumer it's been made tricky to turn off, too.
It'll leave us, the British public, with a multimillion-pound internet curio.
Despite the widely reported problems and mistakes made over iPlayer, the BBC has keenly stage-managed its drunken stumble into the limelight. A bizarre opinion piece by Silicon.com in July, which called for a "ceasefire" on iPlayer from Linux enthusiasts, made the claim that "so far, it seems the Corporation has managed the development well".
As we wrote earlier this month, arguments over interoperability have provided a convenient diversion for the spinners from our bigger question of how to deliver BBC shows over the net. In focusing on DRM and Linux interoperability, campaigners have missed the bigger picture.
The irony of this is that the whole free software versus BBC bunfight would have been avoided if the Corporation had only been more patient. It should have concentrated on getting the content management and archives right before spending big on a consumer-facing distribution system.
Even today, the internet TV business is immature: a special needs six-year-old who still wears nappies. Yet the BBC was teased into an expensive and premature attempt to second guess the market, and technology.
BBC on demand via broadband and a TV set-top box - the real reason the BBC spent £130m - is on the cards, and makes much more sense than a redundant PC desktop app. Whether it'll be branded iPlayer remains to be seen, but hopefully it'll bear little resemblance to Auntie's current digital village idiot.
Today, the the size of the team that is building the second generation iPlayer client is closer to 15 - a far cry from 400, and far more productive.
Banishing the desktop download service altogether would be even better. ®