On arriving in the office this morning, we were greeted with a pleasant surprise in our inbox: an invitation to join the BBC iPlayer open beta, which starts today. We didn't waste any time in getting stuck in. Although anyone can sign up, the number of people who will be allowed to join is being controlled by the Beeb to ensure the whole service doesn't collapse in on itself.
Getting into the system is reasonably easy, once you get your invitation. The first step involves accessing the password-protected beta area. Once in, you must register a username and password. When you've done that, you'll be able to download the iPlayer library -- a little Web applet that keeps track of your downloaded shows. This is also the part that contains the peer-to-peer application that shares the files with other users.
Using the system is straightforward. After logging in, you are presented with an attractive Web page that allows you to see which programmes are available to download. From here, you can search or look at the most recently added shows, as well as pick shows from a specific genre. Downloading something is no harder than clicking a link and waiting for the file to transfer.
There is a problem, though -- the iPlayer doesn't work, or at least, it wouldn't on our machines. We will admit that we are using Windows Media Player 11, which can cause problems. However we tried iPlayer on two computers -- one in the office and one on a perfectly normal home computer on a regular ADSL connection -- and were unsuccessful on both occasions.
In the office we got error messages about updating our security, but the application wouldn't allow us to do the update, which was truly infuriating. On our home machine, the iPlayer got its knickers in a twist because there wasn't enough free space, but ignored our attempts to get it to save the files to a different drive with plenty of space. It, too, displayed an error about security.
We have seen iPlayer working on other computers, so we know it's possible. But as a normal user, if you encountered the problems we did, you'd almost certainly give up. It's far less hassle to just set the PVR to record Top Gear than it is to mess about for ages downloading a DRM-crippled low bit rate WMV file that only lasts seven days.
The stupid thing is, iPlayer is being ruined by DRM and the associated technology required to make it work. Anyone can get TV programmes via BitTorrent by pressing one button and waiting 30 minutes or so. They then have a file that doesn't have restrictions, will play on a whole host of devices and doesn't expire. Of course, downloading copyrighted material is illegal, so most people won't do it, but until the iPlayer is as simple and pain-free as getting XviD files from The Pirate Bay, it doesn't stand a chance in achieving what the BBC wants, which is to control how their media is distributed over the Internet.
We'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences on the iPlayer beta -- please use the comments section below to let us know what you think and what problems you've had. -Ian Morris