BBC iPlayer goes portable
As part of our ongoing mission to make BBC iPlayer available on more devices, I'm pleased to announce that BBC iPlayer TV programmes can now be downloaded to portable media players that are able to support Windows Media-protected content.
Of course, BBC radio downloads and podcasts have been portable to different devices for sometime - just point your device to bbc.co.uk/podcasts and you'll get a version for iPod/iPhone, for Sony PSP and for some Nokia phones. But this is the first time that you can play BBC iPlayer TV programmes on a range of portable media devices.
So far, we've tested BBC iPlayer on:
• Sony Walkman E and S series
• Archos 605 WIFI and Internet Media Tablet
• Philips GoGear 52xx series
• Samsung YP-P2 and YP-Q1
• Nokia N96
See full list of devices on which iPlayer is available.
The new Walkman is tiny - which could be useful if you watch programmes on public transport, while the larger GoGear has a big, bright display.
These devices do not have internet connectivity, so we're talking about a download rather than a streaming experience. What both these devices have in common is that they support Windows Media Protected playback - that is, they support Windows DRM for portable devices, which allows us to make our programmes available for download on them.
These devices are not the only devices that support Windows Media Protected playback - others do as well, but we've tested BBC iPlayer on these devices and are happy with the user experience.
As an aside, working out whether a device supports Windows Media Protected playback may require some research on the part of the consumer. There's a bewildering number of similar-looking devices with different capabilities available in shops, and it can be hard to tell which formats are supported by any given portable media player. The packaging usually has some vague wording like "Plays your music and video downloads, including MP3 and WMV", but often doesn't specify whether the device supports Windows DRM, which is required for playing back BBC iPlayer programmes.
If you're buying a portable media player and would like a model that allows you to play BBC iPlayer programmes on it, we have made a web page, Where To Get BBC iPlayer, where you can get a list of the model numbers of tested BBC iPlayer-compatible devices. Those on this list have been tested by the BBC iPlayer team. BBC iPlayer may work on devices which are not on the list - if the device packaging mentions "PlaysForSure", that's a good sign. We'll update the list as we test more devices.
If you're a device manufacturer and you don't see your device listed, please contact us - we'll then test your device and if compatible, add it to the list.
Downloading BBC iPlayer programmes to your portable media player is easy: simply go to bbc.co.uk/iplayer on your PC, find your programme, and select the Download for Media Players option.
Save the downloaded programme to your desktop (or any other suitable location), plug your media player into your PC, and drag the programme to your media player. Easy.
This process is known as "sideloading" - you download the content to your computer, then sideload it to a device plugged into a USB port.
We've worked hard to make the process as easy as possible - there's no software to install; you just download the file and copy it to your media player. It should be no more difficult than copying photos from your digital camera to your computer. You can also use Windows Media Player to automatically sync downloaded files to your media player for you.
Currently, sideloading is available for Window Media DRM-compatible devices only, which also means that you'll need to do the download from a Windows PC. For our Mac and Linux users, don't despair: we have another release coming up very soon, aimed at improving your BBC iPlayer options - stay tuned for updates...
For those interested in the technical details, we now encode all BBC iPlayer programmes in an additional file format (320x180 pixels 500Kbps video, 128Kbps 48KHz sampling audio, WMV file format) suitable for this class of portable media players.
To do this, we added an extra transcode format into our workflow, able to transcode all 400 hours per week of available BBC iPlayer programmes in this additional format.
We also made some enhancements to our DRM process to support sideloading to portable devices, including pre-delivering the license where possible (where it's not possible to pre-deliver the license at the point that you download the programme, you'll be prompted to play the file - you only need to play the first few seconds - at the time you try to copy it to your portable media player).
Getting protected media to work on portable media players has always been a challenge. Until recently, Apple was the only company that provided a seamless store-to-device user experience. Fortunately, the market is changing, and there are now some devices from other manufacturers that, with suitable workflow at the download and licensing end, can come close to matching that experience.
As part of trying to make the download experience as easy as possible, we're not using P2P for these portable downloads; the files are served as direct HTTP downloads from our servers, which means you don't need to install any software - just click the Download for Media Players link and save the file.
Separate to the above "sideloading" proposition, which is available today, our Mobile team is in the final stages of development of a download proposition for Nokia N96 devices that will also allow you to download programmes "over the air" to your Nokia N96 - i.e., to download directly from the BBC iPlayer site to your phone, without needing to download to your PC first.
These Nokia devices support Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) DRM - so, to make BBC iPlayer content available on those devices, we've built an OMA DRM service. Accordingly, we've now added OMA to the list of rights protection technologies supported by the BBC iPlayer, which should allow us to, in due course and where technically feasible, make BBC iPlayer programmes available on a whole new class of mobile phones and other devices that support the OMA content protection standard.
Editors' note: this post originally contained a paragraph about the BBC iPlayer and the Nokia N95. This paragraph has been removed and is replaced by this blog post from Matthew Postgate which gives more detail.
The astute reader would have noticed our making BBC iPlayer programmes available on Sony, Philips, Nokia and other devices... but what about Apple?
What's common to all the devices listed above is that they support "open" rights protection technologies, where "open" means that any content owner or distributor, such as the BBC, is able to readily license the DRM technologies used by those devices and is able to create content that can be played back on those devices.
Unfortunately, Apple keeps its DRM technology close to its chest and has so far not licensed that technology to third parties. This means that as of today, it's not technically possible for us to make rights-protected BBC iPlayer programmes available for download from the bbc.co.uk/iplayer website in a format compatible with Apple devices. That's a major missing piece for us and a disappointment for Apple device owners, so please know that this has our full attention.
Finally, there's occasional speculation that the choice of devices we support is based on device manufacturers paying us, or a "special relationship" (whatever that means) with certain vendors. Please be assured that this is not the case.
Our device selection is done without fear or favour, based on a standard BBC "Reach, Quality, Impact, Value" (RQIV) assessment policy, where:
• "Reach" means that it will increase the reach of BBC programming (i.e., people who would not otherwise watch or listen to our programmes may now do so)
• "Quality" means it's a great user experience
• "Impact" means people who already interact with the BBC will consume more of our programming
• and "Value" means that this new proposition is value for our license fee payers.
In terms of iPlayer, the decision usually comes down to the popularity of the device and how practical (and costly) it would be to implement and support iPlayer for it.
It's worth remembering that: certain aspects of our content delivery are presently non-negotiable (for example, rights protection such as DRM is required), some devices cannot technologically support BBC iPlayer (and some that do are not geared for it and the quality would be poor) and, last but not least:
bringing BBC iPlayer to a device may require the active involvement of third parties such as the device manufacturer and our content delivery partners.
If you have a device that is not supported, and are wondering why that is the case, these considerations usually contain the answer.
This is a good opportunity to thank all the device manufacturers and technology partners we have worked with so far. The BBC iPlayer team looks forward to working with them, as well as other device manufacturers and future technology partners, to make BBC iPlayer even more widely available, and continue to improve the BBC iPlayer experience.
Anthony Rose is Head of Online Media Group, BBC Future Media & Technology.