Introducing BBC iPlayer Desktop for Mac, Linux and PC
When we launched BBC iPlayer back in Dec 2007, it has been available for streaming on Window, Mac and Linux computers. But if you wanted to download our TV programmes, well, that was PC only. Obviously that wasn't a satisfactory arrangement, and making our downloads available on Mac and Linux has been a major priority for us.
Today, we're really pleased to announce that BBC iPlayer downloads are now available for Mac and Linux as well, thanks to our new Adobe AIR-powered download manager, which we've named BBC iPlayer Desktop.
(click images to enlarge)
To the best of my knowledge we're the first major content provider in the world to offer DRM downloads to PC, Mac and Linux platforms. Getting there has been quite a journey - here's the story...
Why do we need DRM?
In the past we've been criticised for using DRM. Surely a public service broadcaster has a duty to make its content available for free, forever, without rights restrictions, to all UK users. Unfortunately, much as we share those aspirations, the reality is that we have to use DRM, for two reasons:
1. As part of the Public Value Test undertaken by the BBC Trust, a decision was made by the Trust that the BBC could only make iPlayer content available for 7 days after broadcast, or, if you downloaded a programme, that you could keep it for up to 30 days, or 7 days after first playback. This was in response to industry concern that allowing people to keep programmes forever would lead to a reduction in sales of DVDs, etc. The ability to provide this 'timed availability' for downloaded programmes requires Digital Rights Management - i.e. DRM. So, for this reason alone, any download solution that we provide requires DRM.
2. Our rights holders require that we protect their content, at least one reason for which is to allow them to sell that content in other markets. For example, BBC Worldwide generates around one billion pounds in revenue annually, much of which is from sales of BBC programming in other territories, on DVD, etc. Some of that revenue flows back to the BBC public service, offsetting license fee requirements. Additionally, US movie studios often mandate use of particular DRM technologies as a condition for licensing their content. Accordingly, making our content available without any rights restrictions, freely downloadable worldwide, would affect the ability of those rights holders to monetise their content in other markets, hence an additional requirement for DRM.
The BBC was widely criticised for choosing Microsoft DRM, which we chose for the initial iPlayer launch, and have been using since. Various conspiracy theories abounded, but the simple fact was that at the time Windows Media DRM was the only viable digital rights management solution around. It was sufficiently robust, accepted by rights holders, free (some DRM solutions have hefty license fees), fairly easy to use, and worked on 90% of computers.
Since then, we've embarked on a long and arduous journey to find the perfect DRM solution, one that would work on all computers, would be easy to install, would be supported by a reputable vendor, would be acceptable to rights holders, that wouldn't incur significant costs to us, and that could form the basis for a next-gen download manager platform that will in due course, well, keep reading...
We evaluated a large number of DRM solutions, including some open and open-source solutions. Some offered Mac support but not Linux, others required that we make our content available in their store rather than in our web site, other (sometimes open-source) solutions appeared attractive and low cost, but require extensive development to create a tamper-resistant player and would have incurred hefty MPEG licensing fees for playback of H.264 content.
Ultimately, we chose Adobe AIR and Adobe rights management (FMRMS) as our preferred solution for our next-gen BBC iPlayer Desktop application.
So, have we 'switched' to Adobe DRM? Not quite. We continue to use Windows Media DRM for downloads to Windows Media-compatible portable media players, we Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) DRM for downloads to Nokia mobile phones, we use Adobe DRM for downloads to PC, Mac and Linux computers, and we may support other DRM technologies for playback on set top boxes and future IP-connected TV devices.
Although it would be nice to have to support just a single digital rights technology, the reality is that when you look across mobile, PC and TV platforms there's no 'one size fits all' solution, and so we end up supporting a range of content protection technologies.
Of course none of this is of interest to the user - you just want to watch your favourite programme with as little fuss as possible - and we think that our new BBC iPlayer Desktop has gotten us a huge step closer.
No more P2P
Another big change we made is that our new BBC iPlayer Desktop no longer uses P2P. Downloads now come directly from our servers, as direct HTTP downloads.
Why the move away from P2P?
1. When the BBC chose P2P for downloads over two years ago, bandwidth was really expensive, and so P2P was seen as the only way of providing a download service at a sustainable distribution cost. But over the past year the cost of bandwidth has decreased by 90%, making direct HTTP downloads a viable alternative.
2. Some users told us that they didn't like P2P - it used their CPU, used their upload bandwidth, slowed their computer. Our new solution should not have those issues.
3. In the UK, some ISPs count both download and upload internet traffic in their usage calculations, which means that some users were hitting their monthly usage caps more quickly because of P2P upload traffic. Our new solution doesn't have that issue (of course if you download lots of stuff you may still hit you monthly ISP limits - but that applies not just to iPlayer content).
It should be noted that in the technology world nothing stays still for long, and by choosing to not use P2P today we're not making a statement that P2P is either good or bad - we're simply saying that the cost/benefit right now is in favour of direct HTTP downloads, perhaps in due course served from edge caching servers deep in ISP networks. However, in the future new requirements and new P2P technologies (e.g. P2P streaming) may lead to a re-evaluation of our preferred delivery options.
Months ago we promised that we'd have BBC iPlayer programmes available for download to Mac and Linux computers before the end of 2008, and we made it... just.
Getting a solution out that worked on Mac was the easy part... having a solution that worked on Linux as well was somewhat harder. It's no coincidence that BBC iPlayer was released on the same day that AIR 1.5 for Linux was released by Adobe, as this is the first AIR release that provides DRM support on Linux platforms.
Available today to Labs users
The version of BBC iPlayer that's out today is very much a beta product, with a number of known issues that we'll be working hard to fix right after the Christmas break.
For those users who have our existing Download Manager installed, we don't want to break something that's working really well, and so we've introducing our new BBC iPlayer Desktop in Labs first. That means that it's available to anyone who has signed up as a Labs user - to do so, simply head over to BBC iPlayer Labs.
We expect to move BBC iPlayer Desktop out of Labs and make it our mainstream download manager application in February.
Right now BBC iPlayer Desktop makes use of the same 800Kbps H.264 content that's used for our High Quality streaming option. We're working on improving that, to provide 1500Kbps H.264 content that should be close to television quality. So, starting around February, we expect to deliver substantially better quality for downloads (these 1500Kbps streams will also be offered for streaming, providing near TV quality in iPlayer).
After that, we plan to use our new Adobe AIR platform to provide a range of features that will, we think, produce a really seamless online/offline, browser/desktop experience. Key features that are coming up include:
- being able to download radio podcasts
- being able to pre-book download of your favourite programmes, including whole series
- getting a popup system tray alert when your favourite programmes become available
- on-demand an live radio streaming, on your desktop.
Basically, we're looking to use this new platform to bring BBC content much closer to your desktop... which is why we called it BBC iPlayer Desktop.
Anthony Rose is Head of Online Media Group, BBC Future Media and Technology.