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BBC iPlayer – Don’t Hold Your Breath

Posted by Daniel on July 29, 2007

BBC iPlayerOn 27th July, the BBC iPlayer was finally launched, after a series of rumours, blunders and false starts dating back to 2003, when the project was first announced. Except, actually, it hasn’t launched. Again.

The iPlayer is currently in another beta stage, meaning that the previous 1000-user beta which launched on 15th November last year simply wasn’t good enough and nor was the beta before that of 5000 users from October 2005. So, cue a mad rush of those ‘in-the-know’ to start toying with the new technology, as soon as the floodgates opened last Friday. However, those who got to the site were welcomed by a friendly piece of text, stating that memberships are to be handed out on an application basis. You apply, wait to be accepted and then the fun allegedly starts.

With disappointment comes a sense of reasoning, initially, where the frustration subsides and one realises that, maybe the BBC do need to tinker around with it one last time to get things right before a full public launch. However, after taking a look at the beta myself, there is a lot left for them to develop.

When you’re approved to enter the program, you’re given a username and password which consists of randomly generated letters and numbers respectively (therefore difficult to remember). But then, to use the iPlayer, you have to enter in a second, and separate, username and password which is the normal one you use to log into the BBC’s forums. So far, so bad, with two different logins required. After deciding I wanted to take a look at the last Doctor Who episode which I unfortunately missed, I was asked to install the iPlayer onto my computer, which I did right away… after being asked to sign in again. Upon installation, I refreshed the page as instructed but clicking ‘download’ just brought up the same request to install the iPlayer, despite having it open and in front of me.

As it demanded, I was in Windows, I had the recent Media Player and I opened the site in Internet Explorer. Do you think Mark Thompson and Bill Gates are having an affair behind our backs? iPlayer won’t work on Macs or Linux and it won’t work on Firefox or, in fact, any other browser, operating system or media player. This, the BBC says, is set to be in development by the autumn but knowing their regard for deadlines, who actually knows?

4oDIn fact, there already exists a very simple program which downloads popular programmes legally and with just a couple of clicks. 4 on Demand (or 4oD as it’s fashionably known) has been delivering programmes quite successfully, with a minimum amount of problems since last November. The worst bit is, they use the same technology as the iPlayer but the BBC still can’t pull it off, despite the gargantuan development time. Sure, 4oD is not perfect – it only runs in Windows and they don’t have further plans to extend it and some programmes cost money to view – but it actually works. As does ITV’s offering and Five’s odd CSI-only service – in fact the BBC run a report on their news site which seems to trounce the iPlayer in all ways. It seems the new application is losing popularity already.

Audience apathy isn’t the only problem, however. This beta (or gamma or even delta) test is extremely buggy, with users experiencing system crashes, delivery errors, failed logins, program conflicts, security problems… a cabbage could probably download BBC programming better than iPlayer. It desperately begs the question:

What the hell have the BBC been doing for the past four years?!

Let’s hope that by the full launch in the autumn, it actually works for everyone. For a look at the iPlayer from someone who did get it to work, have a look at the Guardian’s review. At the moment though, as far as I’m concerned, those re-runs of Chucklevision will have to wait.


Does the iPlayer work well for you? Is it a disastrous overinvestment of time and money or is it a godsend to audiences in the UK? What should we see from on demand television services in the future, in order to make them more accessible to audiences? Drop me a comment and tell me what you think.


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