BBC programmes make it to the iPhone

Every now and then something I say turns out to be correct. At the start of the month I wondered if the BBC would be bringing their programming to the iPhone, and now they are! In announcements over the last couple of days, the BBC has said in a press release that it is bringing shows to iTunes, that is will be turning on new features for the iPlayer, and enabling it to be used on the iPhone (1).

This is great news, and what we should be expecting from our public service broadcaster. As always though, the devil is in the detail, so let’s examine what this all means (and if I really was right after all).

As I wrote before, iPlayer is really two platforms: download and streaming.


The P2P platform used – Kontiki – is Windows-only, so this was never going to be extended direct to the iPhone or even to Mac OS X. In my last piece, I suggested that the BBC could allow show rentals via iTunes, which would allow both Windows and Mac users access to programming. Apple’s DRM would be in place, meaning rentals would expire after a short period of time.

For me, snugly cocooned in the Appley ecosystem, BBC on iTunes would be ideal, enabling legal and easy BBC tv on-the-go.

So how snug is my new tv cocoon? As it happens, the BBC has not signed up to allow rentals through iTunes. Auntie’s commercial arm – BBC Worldwide – will allow purchase of certain programmes through iTunes in the UK and Amazon’s Unbox service in the US. Programmes are going to be available 8 days after broadcast; they come at 640 x 360 resolution in .m4v format, which is Raw MPEG-4 Visual bitstream. Pricing is a little high in my opinion, as UK customers are paying double the price of those in the US – £1.89 per episode in the UK, compared to $1.99 in the US. But having shows to buy is in line with the remit to increase the BBC’s commercial revenue. That’s fine with me, as a licence payer I don’t reasonably expect to be able to keep programmes for free. I’m not sure why they went with Unbox rather than iTunes, but I do know a few American friends of mine who will be very happy.

So the BBC has not transported the iPlayer idea in totality. They could have allowed rentals through the UK iTunes store to be available for free for 7 days yet playable for 30 days, with the programme then only available for purchase after 8 days.

Yet I think this should be taken as a toe in the ocean. There’s no reason why BBC content could not be rented for free through iTunes to UK residents, but doing so would be a massive undertaking in bandwidth alone. I still think it’ll come, but I think it will come with perhaps more integration with Apple TV, which would be a massive boost to take-up of Apple’s set-top box in the UK.

Furthermore, the BBC may be looking to put their huge back catalogue online. I was on the BBC Archive trial , and some of the material available was incredible. Also, it will allow some shows to become available that would not be economically viable to release as DVDs. The BBC has a very very long tail. Imagine being able to search and download all of that through iTunes.

So while we’re waiting for the next steps, if you don’t mind waiting 8 days and paying, some BBC programming will now be available on your iPhone.

Quick aside: The BBC may move away from Kontiki to a new, cross-platform, Open Source, legal, peer-to-peer system called P2P Next. It’s a long way off but, nice as iTunes is, a platform-independent solution would be far better IMHO. More details on the BBC Internet blog.


The much more exciting news for me is that iPlayer will be coming direct to the iPhone and iPod Touch over Wifi, using a H.264 stream. Anthony Rose, Head of Digital Media Technology, was quoted on Neowin as saying:

The iPlayer will be available on the iPhone and Touch in “the next few weeks”. Rose said of the development: “It will be the first of a transformation in people streaming long-form content onto a portable device.”

It will only work through wifi and is possible because of the devices’ good web support. Rose said the BBC would decide whether to extend to other mobiles depending on their platforms and reach.

This is excellent news. Previously, though, I identified two main problems with streaming:

  • bandwidth requirements
  • transcoding into an iPhone-playable format

So how did the BBC solve these issues?

Delivering solely over Wifi steps around the iPhone’s EDGE mobile connectivity (and the iPod Touch having none at all), and is understandable given the bandwidth requirement for streaming. There’s already an agreement with The Cloud to provide free BBC content without needing a subscription – iPlayer access via the iPhone/iPod Touch will now be included in this. This does fall a little short of a mobile iPlayer though, seeing as it only works over Wifi which lacks the ubiquity of cellular coverage. This is more of a limitation of the iPhone than anything else, but it could mean that truely mobile iPlayer on the iPhone only come into its own once a 3G iPhone is released.

As for transcoding, I said:

Unless Apple adds Flash support to the iPhone…then iPlayer video would need to be transcoded from Flash…to H.264

There are rumours that Flash will be appearing in the next firmware upgrade, but the BBC’s decision avoids that requirement. Hopefully, they will not move away from Flash – the ease of use and cross-platform availablility of iPlayer has been the source of its success, I’d argue. But moving to a H.264 stream as well mean that the iPhone will play iPlayer content without worrying about needing a firmware upgrade. This is great for UK iPhone users, but this stream will be even easier to capture and save, so I wonder what protection the BBC will put in place?

Also, the reference to “good web support” indicates that this will be a web app rather than a native application for the iPhone, although Rose could be referring to the underlying networking frameworks of mobile OS X.

One more question: what about TV Out? You can watch videos that are played through Safari’s Quicktime plugin, so in theory iPlayer content should be playable from the iPhone onto a tv. The iPhone could then act as a time-shifted digital tv box (albeit an expensive one).

And further afield?

Looking beyond just the iPhone, Rose’s comments indicates to me that the BBC is probably working on other portable platforms. If they are going to extend to other platforms – as the BBC’s remit demands – then surely Symbian will get a look in here. They are far more widely used than iPhones, have 3G connectivity, and can already play Flash and H.264 content.

Extending to more and more platforms also raises questions of cost for the Beeb:

Director of new media and technology Ashley Highfield said the impact of iPlayer on ISP networks has been “negligible”, with traffic representing a “few per cent” of overall bandwidth.

Source: The Register

There may be a negligible effect now, but with streaming iPlayer extending to more and more platforms, ISPs’ bandwidth costs will start to rise, and they have already said that the BBC will have to pay. New models will have to be developed that take account of different types of tv distribution, such as offsetting costs by the BBC offering paying partner ISPs through peering arrangements.

The extension of the iPlayer platform bodes well for major changes to the ways in which people watch tv. Nokia may have just included DVB-H in the N96, but I wonder how much live tv will be taken up if streamable content passes the “good enough” test. For now though, as long as I can get BBC shows direct to my iPhone, I’m happy, and I’ll let someone else worry about the finances and the future.

(1) Hat tip to Chris Williams at The Register for confirming that the iPhone development was outlined at a journalists’ briefing yesterday. My invite must have been lost in the post 😉

  • Leon

    Brilliant article my friend.

    Hopefully the iPhone will live it to its massive media hype as the best portable media device to date. At the moment I am a little disappointed at the features.