iPlayer Day: The blue-eyed boy
Today it's easy to forget how fraught a journey we had in the early stages of a project which I joined in the summer of 2006
By then the BBC iPlayer was well on its way from being the BBC's blue eyed boy to something more like a spectre at the feast. Every month it seemed a rival broadcaster launched its own video on demand service. One commentator remarked in July 2007 that the "the BBC has gone from market leader to market laggard". We worried that we would be too late.
Of course, we understood that we - the BBC and its partners at Siemens and Red Bee Media - were embarked on the heroic transformation of linear broadcasting... but who would care about that if the thing didn't work?
There were dark mutterings - some from BBC staff - about iPlayer's peer to peer download system and how it might mangle software and bankrupt the unwary. Had we chosen the wrong system?
We also worried that it would work too well. Our initial projections suggested that if 40,000 people downloaded programmes at the same time the internet would grind to a halt. How could we monitor this - and what could we do? Now that daily streams easily top a million we've relaxed a bit.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the hundreds, then thousands, who signed up to iPlayer during its long months behind a walled garden. The early trialists were encouraging and, above all, patient. For three weeks in February 2007 we suspended the service entirely. Many of them were actively helpful - our operations team would eagerly scan the message board to see if anyone had a solution for that day's problem.
By June 2007, 15000 had signed up though fewer stayed the course. A drawback of our first design was that it drew as much attention to the (all too many) programmes we didn't have as to those we did. Another was beginning with downloads rather than streaming. This brought more technical problems - with browsers, firewalls and the rest - and made it trickier to explain how to make iPlayer work.
By the Autumn, things were looking up and we began to grapple with more traditional editorial concerns. If there was no watershed on the web how could we warn users about grown up content? (Our parental lock system, built in record time.) Could we find a way to quickly edit programme descriptions that had errors? (Yes, but it took a long time to enable that.) Would millions of people call our helpdesk team and bankrupt the BBC? (Not so far.)
And then we were free! Anthony Rose and the team sorted out streaming and much else. What looked like a high risk Christmas Day launch was smooth as cream. iPlayer was being talked about everywhere, and everywhere was being praised. The blue eyed boy had returned...
In all this, however, the thing that brought home the transformation most powerfully was sitting on a bus one night in London with my wife. Behind us were two Russians in enthusiastic conversation in their native language. In mid sentence came the English words "BBC iPlayer". I think they liked it.
Ian Hunter is Managing Editor, Internet Group, BBC Future Media and Technology.