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Review - BBC iPlayer Streaming Beta With Ubuntu and Firefox

As a Linux user the decision by the BBC to use proprietary Microsoft DRM for their iPlayer video downloading service came as very disappointing news. Seemingly many of the several million UK Mac and Linux users agreed with me and kicked up a fair stink over the issue. This lead to the BBC trust mandating that the iPlayer should provide support for all licence payers, not just those who run Windows.
The streaming iPlayer is the BBC’s answer to the protesting OSX and Ubuntu devotees who want the freedom to catch up on last weeks Eastenders.
I will be testing it with Firefox 2 running on a fairly decrepit Ubuntu laptop to see if it offers anything for us beardy Linux users left out in the cold.
My first impression is how Mac like it all looks. I find it quite bizzare that BBC Future Media managed to come up with a platform that has the look and feel of an iPhone with an Apple referencing name which was incompatible with the Mac but I digress.
The page opens with suggested highlights you may wish to catch up on and a “Last 7 Days” button which causes a snazzy looking days of the week toolbar to fade into view. From there you can filter the content by network and time of day. The available programmes appear in a grid but unfortunately the interface truncates the title of the programme and doesn’t offer the full title in a tooltip when the mouse hovers over the item. The only way to get to the full title of the content or a synopsis of the show is to click on it and open the video. There is no back button so if the content is incorrect you must start the search process again. Strangely if you click the “Last 7 Days” button once you’ve opened a video it opens behind the video and is effectively no use.
Once you have found your desired episode the interface is essentially a You Tube alike. On the plus side the video is 16×9 and looks relatively free from artefacts and the audio is 128Kbps which is perfectly acceptable for most purposes.
Unfortunately it has a lot to learn from the oft imitated but never bettered You Tube player. The time indication is grey on black and I find it virtually impossible to read. I could put up with the unreadable time code if it wasn’t for two painful errors. Firstly the transport controls don’t appear to work at all. If you attempt to move the play head it switches to a buffering icon seemingly indefinitely and secondly if you click the full screen icon it claims the feature is unavailable because my Flash player is not up to date when this is not the case. On the two programmes I attempted to watch both played to approximately half way through then faded to black and displayed the not at all helpful message “Something Went Wrong”before refusing to play further.

iPlayer is still listed as being beta software, but with a full launch planned on Christmas Eve it really should be in a better state than this by now.
As it stands the service would appear to be virtually unusable to the Firefox/Ubuntu user though I would be interested to hear what the experience of Windows users has been.

Despite all the problems I can’t help thinking that more than just a conciliatory gesture to the Linux/Mac community the streaming player will prove to be the better way of accessing iPlayer content.
Throughout the history of TV the user experience has been that you get your show when you turn on the TV not the next day. If you Bit Torrent a show you have to wait, but at least then you have the option to keep it as long as you want and transfer it to your portable device/burn it to DVD as you require.
The BBC p2p service is rendered obsolete when you can easily download platform agnostic content unburdened with DRM from Pirate Bay. This method has the disadvantage of it dubious legal status, but could you imagine any court in the land punishing a licence payer for getting hold of content they were unable to watch through official channels because the content is crippled with proprietary Digital Restrictions Management.

I look forward to seeing how the service develops and matures over time but for now it simply doesn’t function as it should.

Published 19 Dec 2007

    Engineer & Musician
    Nick Long on Twitter