We want to love iPlayer, we really do. The BBC is always trying hard to make sure its content is available to as many people as possible on as many platforms, and we love Auntie for that. iPlayer, which we should point out is still in beta, goes far beyond the services from other broadcasters -- the amount of programming on offer is vast, with something for everyone.
But as much as we love the concept, there are a few things we hate about iPlayer in practice. Here are the five key things we think need changing before the final iPlayer release.
1. You have no control over the bandwidth it uses
iPlayer uses an application called Kontiki that manages your programme downloads. The problem is Kontiki is a P2P application that not only downloads content, but uploads it too. Files are distributed by 'seeders', or people who have chunks of the file to upload to others, which means the BBC can reduce its costs.
We think this is a problem, because iPlayer isn't just aimed at people who are confident with computers and technology. It's aimed at the general public, many of whom are on Internet connections with download limits, which uploads usually count towards. And where there's P2P and a download limit, the potential for disaster is greater than when Uwe Boll takes a fancy to a videogame. Imagine if your ISP charges you for any data usage after you reach your limit -- BT, for example, does this on some tariffs. iPlayer could get expensive very quickly. What's more, you can't really tell how much iPlayer uploads, unlike on BitTorrent, where you can see what has been downloaded and uploaded at a glance.
We understand that the BBC has its hands tied on this one to some extent. The actors' unions, the music industry and the production companies are the ones who insist that DRM is present in the downloaded files, restricting how long you can keep it and locking it to one computer -- and a specific OS (see 3, below). Obviously, the BBC does have some interest in restricting the distribution of its content, because it makes millions of pounds a year from the sale of DVDs, and this helps reduce the licence fee.
But the laughable thing is, every single programme on iPlayer has already been blasted through the skies without any such restriction placed upon it. If you get a digital TV card for your PC, you can capture anything the BBC broadcasts, keep it for as long as you want and put it on your PVP to watch when you're out and about.
3. It only works with Windows XP
The press has had a field day with the reaction from the Linux camp about iPlayer not working on that platform, and we can see why. Even if we accept that Windows is the platform the Beeb wants to test on, why isn't Vista support included? There's a version of Kontiki with support for Microsoft's newest OS.
Once again, DRM not only prevents you from using your media in a way that suits you, it also restricts the platforms that can support it. As long as there's DRM in iPlayer, it's never going to be available via Linux. So the argument looks set to run and run. The better solution would have been for the BBC to develop its own distribution system, perhaps based on BitTorrent, that has some custom DRM protection built in.
4. It doesn't work on lots of machines
What annoys us most is that, even if you've got XP, it still might not work. We found this to be a particular problem on machines with Windows Media Player 11, or those where we couldn't perform updates because of some sort of restriction. We've now installed iPlayer on a PC within our corporate network, one laptop connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi and one home PC on a fast ADSL line. None of them work. There are people who have got iPlayer to work -- we've even met some of them -- but we've not had a positive experience so far.
Issues we've encountered are: incompatibilities with WMP 11; security update warnings that won't allow you to press 'update'; files that simply refuse to download; files that download but will only play the BBC ident and stop before the programme starts; and an Internet Explorer error about a 'slow running script' in the iPlayer library.
5. Picture quality is rubbish
Although we understand that picture quality isn't really the purpose of iPlayer, we would still like to see files that look a little better than the ones currently on the service, which look worse than VHS quality if you plug your PC into an HDTV. There have also been problems with widescreen files being encoded in the wrong size, so it's not possible to watch them full screen without black bars all around the image. When we asked the BBC about HD over iPlayer, it was keen on the idea. Let's hope so, because there's no reason not to provide content in decent quality. Especially once you can watch files on your TV through a media streamer, which is only a matter of time.
If you're worried about the P2P file-sharing aspect of the iPlayer, you can buy a piece of software called NetLimiter, which will allow you to restrict the data you upload. You should be aware that stopping iPlayer from uploading anything may result in you being banned from the beta. If you decide to remove iPlayer, you can download a tool called 'Kclean' which allows you to remove the service completely by uninstalling Kontiki. After you do this, though, Sky by Broadband, 4oD and iPlayer will all stop working. -Ian Morris