The BBC’s always been in the platform business. It was BBC engineers who designed and built the broadcast platforms of your analogue youth. They built them without the slightest expectation of remuneration from competing broadcasters and usually did so in the spirit of international collaboration that spread these standards around the planet at a remarkable speed via organisations like the EBU.
And now, on the Internet, the platforms keep coming. Here’s a round-up of the three IPTV platforms the BBC is currently developing (and if you count Kangaroo you might reasonably make that four).
iPlayer’s an industrial-grade chunk of engineering if I’ve ever seen one. It’s in the tradition of heavyweight BBC engineering projects of the past, like the national network of transmission masts and the whole outside broadcast infrastructure. It couldn’t have been otherwise: there’s no room for a secondary distribution channel at the BBC. It’s all primary. iPlayer knits together the big iron in the BBC’s playout and transmission facilities and the servers, storage arrays, switches and load sharing kit in the BBC’s data centres with the PCs and browsers in licence fee-payers’ homes. It’s this end-to-end package of broadcast and Internet engineering that’s on offer to the UK’s commercial PSBs in last week’s Public Service Partnerships (PDF).
It’s important to remember this: if ITV, C4 and Five jump at the chance to share the iPlayer it won’t be because they don’t think they can design their own Flash player, it’ll be because the challenge of designing and engineering (let alone maintaining) a large-scale IPTV platform is frankly beyond their means. If any significant proportion of TV viewing switches to IP in the next few years, the costs of maintaining a really robust (‘broadcast-quality’) platform will be enormous.
The implications of a shared platform for UK IPTV, of course, are also potentially enormous. It’s not a million miles from the moment during the 1920s when the early radio broadcasters agreed to use a single transmission standard. And there’ll be political fall-out. How will competition issues be resolved if, in five years time, four (or a dozen, or fifty) competing public service outlets are sharing a single IPTV infrastructure? And will there be a ‘Sky moment’ when Murdoch launches a competing infrastructure, perhaps hosted off-shore to avoid UK regulatory clearance? Fascinating.
Update: The iPlayer product roadmap must be the most comprehensive in the short history of IPTV—or in the long history of TV for that matter. The dreadnought of British on-demand TV apparently knows no limits. No platform will be left behind! No audience unserved! No delivery method unused! I was pretty sure the download iPlayer was going to be left to whither in the shadow of its more popular little brother the streaming iPlayer. I was wrong.
Last week’s announcement that Mac and Linux support have been added to the original download iPlayer sets me straight nicely. And in case you’ve been going round thinking that adding support for those two OSs might actually have been quite easy, you probably need to read Anthony Rose’s post at the BBC Internet blog. Getting downloading working on Mac and Linux required months of work, the testing and adoption of a new parallel DRM scheme and a brand new Flash rendering engine. Blimey.
The download iPlayer clearly retains its role for the BBC – in particular, I think, as the most direct way to serve non-connected platforms (handheld media palyers) and platforms where bandwidth is still expensive (mobile phones). This is an interesting extension of the idea of a platform (iPlayer already supports at least half a dozen platforms officially, more unofficially) and an equally intriguing definition of the obligations of a public service media owner.
Totem is a different kind of player. It’s an application packaged as a plug-in for various UNIX distributions (starting with Ubuntu). Totem doesn’t concern itself—unlike iPlayer—with the infrastructure. Totem piggy-backs the stores of content already provided by the BBC (and by anyone else, in principle). It takes care of discovery (what’s on) and playback and it makes use of another experimental BBC product, URIPlay, to identify accessible content. It can’t presently play back iPlayer content – although there’s nothing to stop the BBC from permitting this, perhaps in a later release.
What’s really fascinating here is the way Totem is knitted into the Operating System: it’ll ship as part of the leading UNIX distribution so users will find it pre-installed. Contrast this with the way the streaming iPlayer runs—with no install—further up in the stack, inside a browser. There’s no doubting where the investment is going at the BBC right now so it’s unlikely that we’ll see Totem going mainstream any time soon but as a way of getting into the software stack on consumer devices I can’t think of a better approach – and one that might be very fruitful on other devices, such as mobile phones (where iPlayer is already pre-installed on some handsets) and games consoles.
Erik Huggers at MIPCOM 2008 from James Martin on Vimeo.
Canvas is a much larger effort (to be delivered via a partnership with other VOD providers) to hook broadband provision and television together. It will—if it makes it into production—blend iPlayer and other playback technologies with a hardware platform (a set-top box) and some new content delivery protocols. The result will be a new box you can buy from Dixons—not unlike your Freeview box—that will bring the wonders of telly on the web to your living room.
The Canvas box will almost certainly violate the BBC’s principle that set-tops should be available for a one-off fee and no monthly charge. Internet Service Prividers will be obliged to charge for access and some will inevitably bundle a Canvas box with your monthly broadband contract. The additional fee the ISPs will be able to charge customers for Canvas may even make them feel a better about subsidising the delivery of bandwidth-hungry UK TV content to their subscribers.
The partners in Canvas think they can unlock a new market for IPTV delivered to the living room. Canvas could replace the mosaic of devices (Media Center PCs, Apple TV, IP-equipped games consoles, specialist video rental boxes and a handful of proprietary IP-ready PVRs) that can already deliver IPTV to your flat-screen. Manufacturers will licence the Canvas chipset and OS (for nothing) and wrap their own additional services around it. They might add PVR functionality, a wifi connection or a home media hub that plays back other media types, for instance. Canvas will inevitably also show up built-in to digital TVs and TV tuner cards for PCs. There’ll be a logo, a ‘Canvas-ready’ sticker and an awareness campaign.
By the time Canvas arrives some of those other platforms will be pretty mature and some will be aiming for inclusion in combo devices and TVs. Cable and Satellite will also be bidding for ownership of IPTV to the living room. Expect a competitive/regulatory punch-up in the UK, most likely led by Sky and Virgin as in the Kangaroo case. It should be quite exciting. Update: Virgin Media this week announced a potential competitor for Canvas: a unified IPTV platform that will run across cable, Internet and mobile.
Some useful links: fascinating post by George Wright about Totem from the BBC Internet blog. Also from the BBC Internet blog, lots of useful posts from iPlayer Day. Rory Cellan-Jones on Canvas from his blog at BBC News. Kate Bulkley on the ISPs’ fears for Canvas from Broadcast (UK TV trade mag), Erik Huggers discussing Canvas (and iPlayer etc.) at MIPCOM.