BBC iPlayer on Android update
I've been following the comments on my recent post about BBC iPlayer on mobile on Android 2.2 phones with interest and want to address some of the points raised.
First, it's worth reflecting on what we are trying to achieve with the BBC iPlayer on mobile service. The BBC Online Service Licence, issued in May 2010, describes iPlayer's objectives as:
"BBC iPlayer should enable licence fee payers to access BBC programming quickly, easily and in a high quality format. In doing so, it should aim to be regarded as a high quality BBC service by its users and so contribute to their approval of the BBC.
BBC iPlayer should aim to maintain the BBC's overall reach and consumption levels, as usage of the BBC's linear services is replaced over time by on-demand consumption. In doing so, it should contribute in the long term to the BBC's ambition to provide services that are of value to all licence fee payers. It should aim at least to maintain consumption of BBC content by younger adults (those aged 16-34)....
...In fulfilling its other aims and objectives, BBC iPlayer should aim to contribute to the growth in the usage of rich media in broadband households. Within a reasonable timescale, it should aim to make the seven-day catch-up offering available on a platform-neutral basis, or at the least to be available on all major platforms subject to value for money considerations and as technology allows."
Given these overall objectives, BBC iPlayer on mobile is tasked with maximising reach on mobile platforms while delivering a high quality BBC service in a cost-effective way.
The big question, and it's a question being pondered by other content providers right across the industry, is: how do we scale services across multiple mobile platforms in a cost and resource efficient way?
The mobile landscape is very fragmented with a host of operating systems and a proliferation of screen sizes, resolutions, video codecs and web browsers. Developing for each platform soon becomes very expensive. Maintaining and supporting each variant requires more and more resource as each operating system releases new firmware versions and upgrades.
Rolling out new BBC iPlayer features across all mobile platforms would also be increasingly expensive as would the associated testing and support effort. As new phones and new operating systems enter the market, we would be obliged to support the new ones as well as the old ones adding to our support overheads.
To get an idea of the range of mobile platforms and the potential complexity of development see, for example, this Wikipedia article about mobile application development.
Given these development challenges, our approach has been to build a scalable website that works in the phone's web browser and can be easily tweaked to achieve that high quality experience on a range of internet enabled mobile devices.
The BBC iPlayer on mobile website is modular with a series of components that can be easily switched on or off depending on the phone's capabilities. The practical upshot of this is that if there's a feature which your phone can't handle, you won't even see it (rather than having something that's there even if it won't work for you).
The advantages of a web solution for BBC iPlayer on mobile is we can leverage the BBC's existing web technologies and software development skills while minimising the number of iPlayer variants and special builds we have to support. We just have to build and maintain a single website.
Our web approach also means that new features, like those rolled out with the recent Version 3 release, only need to be built once, rather than for each variant or operating system. We also benefit from infrastructure efficiencies by using existing servers, development environments and encoding and delivery systems. For more on the infrastructure behind BBC iPlayer see Marina Kalkanis's blog post.
We could have enabled the BBC iPlayer on mobile website on all video enabled phones without any restrictions or exceptions. This would have maximized our reach, but would have resulted in a very poor quality experience on many phones as video playback capabilities and web browser rendering vary across devices. Some users would have had a good experience while others suffered a sub-optimal service with features not working and poor video playback quality.
To maintain the consistently high quality service demanded by our service licence we have had to test the BBC iPlayer on mobile website on a device-by-device basis to make sure that everything works and we deliver the best possible user experience.
So, how do we prioritise which phones we test and enable BBC iPlayer on?
We look at the reach potential of a device to understand how many licence fee payers we can make the service available to through that phone. We also evaluate the resource and maintenance costs of enabling a high quality iPlayer experience on that device. In addition we assess whether we can apply technology solutions we already have to new devices with minimum effort, an example of this would be BBC iPlayer streaming on iPad as the tech needed is very similar to that which enables us to stream iPlayer on iPhones. This is driven by our overall objective of maximizing reach on mobile platforms while delivering a high quality BBC service in a cost-effective way.
We have limited resources on BBC iPlayer on mobile and therefore have to carefully prioritise development work to maximise reach and value. So, if, for example, I have 15 units of work I need to do on mobile iPlayer (support, maintenance, new features, new handsets etc) but only 5 units of effort available, I've got to focus on the high volume phones to get the service out to as many people as possible.
I hope that gives an overview of what the BBC is trying to achieve with BBC iPlayer on mobile and outlines the approach we have adopted.
I'd now like to turn to some of the specific questions raised in the comments on my previous blog post.
Tiggs questioned why the BBC took down the beebPlayer which worked on older Android devices and did not rely on Flash, and why we have replaced it with something that only works on newer devices and requires Flash.
The BBC's syndication policy, which governs how the BBC makes its services available through other parties, clearly outlines the criteria for using BBC content. BeebPlayer was not a licensed distributor of BBC content online or on mobile. The BBC routinely looks for unauthorised usage of our brand and our content across all platforms and when we encounter it we work to resolve the issue. If on investigation we find that a company's service proposition does not adhere to our standard licence terms and conditions, we will take steps to remedy the issue.
Why has the BBC replaced beebPlayer with something that only works on newer devices and requires Flash?
Using Adobe Flash 10.1 streaming on mobile delivers significant infrastructure efficiencies for the BBC, as we use our existing video and audio encoding plant to create the streams. We don't need to install any new kit or set up any new servers. We just use what we already have to offer a higher quality BBC iPlayer on mobile experience.
Enabling Flash on Android 2.2 devices also means that all current and new devices that support Android 2.2 can get BBC iPlayer. These devices all use the same standard Flash player which means we can offer a consistently high quality playback across all of them. Previously we had to review and test BBC iPlayer on a device-by-device basis to ensure the right high quality experience. Now we can offer BBC iPlayer on mobile to a whole group of devices at once, which is clearly much more efficient.
Chris questioned why the BBC has chosen Flash over a more open and accessible standard.
Adobe Flash reaches an estimated 95% of PCs which means the BBC can use Flash streaming technologies to reach audiences on the internet right across the UK with a consistent video playback experience.
As soon as Flash streaming came to mobile, through Adobe's Flash 10.1 player on Android 2.2 devices, it made sense to make the most of our existing Flash infrastructure to bring that consistent playback experience to mobile as well.
Why haven't we enabled BBC iPlayer on mobile on any other Android phones apart from Android version 2.2?
BBC iPlayer on mobile's reach objectives mean we have had to prioritise other devices that offer the BBC wider reach over current Android phones.
The best way to bring BBC iPlayer to earlier versions of Android (which don't support Flash), is to develop an app. This would provide a single scalable version that could be offered to all Android phones.
The BBC Trust is conducting a review of the BBC's plans to develop smartphone apps. The BBC will therefore not be launching any Android apps or apps for any other smartphone in the UK pending the outcome of the BBC Trust review.
David Madden is Executive Product Manager for BBC iPlayer on Mobile.