BBC’s iPlayer — what a mess

I haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to the BBC’s “iPlayer” project, since, as a non-UK resident, I’m not allowed to use it anyway. But this interview at Groklaw with Mark Taylor, President of the UK Open Source Consortium, was really quite eye-opening. Here’s some choice snippets.

On the management team’s Microsoft links:

The iPlayer is not what it claimed to be, it is built top-to-bottom on a Microsoft-only stack. The BBC management team who are responsible for the iPlayer are a checklist of senior employees from Microsoft who were involved with Windows Media. A gentleman called Erik Huggers who’s responsible for the iPlayer project in the BBC, his immediately previous job was director at Microsoft for Europe, Middle East & Africa responsible for Windows Media. He presided over the division of Windows Media when it was the subject of the European Commission’s antitrust case. He was the senior director responsible. He’s now shown up responsible for the iPlayer project.

On their attempts to bullshit the BBC Trust on the cross-platform issue:

In the consultations that the BBC Trust made, there were 10,000 responses from the public. And the overwhelming majority of them, over 80% — which is an unheard-of figure in these kind of things — said, we don’t like the platform. We don’t like it being single-platform. So it’s a big issue. And the BBC Trust said to us, “Why the vehemence? Why have people reacted this way?” And I explained the ‘Auntie’ analogy. It’s people don’t expect that from the BBC. It’s got this huge history of integrity, doing the right thing, standing up to bullies. (laughter) They’ve done this for a very long time. And people find that it’s surprising. And they said, “Yeah, but,” you know, the BBC guys said, “Well, trust us. This is going to be cross-platform.” And we said, “Well, how? It’s completely single-platform.” They say that, but we haven’t been able to find anyone who’s been able to explain how they’re going to achieve that at the moment, even though they’re entirely locked into one single platform.

(aside: MS did this at one point with Internet Explorer — remember, there was some mystery team in Germany that supposedly had IE ported to Solaris, hence it therefore qualified as ‘cross-platform’.)

On the architecture of the product:

Q: it’s a Verisign Kontiki architecture, it’s peer-to-peer, and in fact one of the more worrying aspects is that you have no control over your node. It loads at boot time under Windows, the BBC can use as much of your bandwidth as they please (laughter), in fact I think OFCOM … made some kind of estimate as to how many hundreds of millions of pounds that would cost everyone […]. There is a hidden directory called “My Deliveries” which pre-caches large preview files, it phones home to the Microsoft DRM servers of course, it logs all the iPlayer activity and errors with identifiers in an unencrypted file. Now, does this assessment agree with what you’ve looked at?

Mark Taylor: Yes.

Q: What are the privacy implications for an implementation like this?

Mark Taylor: Well, just briefly going back to the assessment thing, yes it does log precisely RSS and stuff like that and more importantly, anyone technically informed who’s had a look at it — even more importantly, the user’s assessment as well and — frankly horrified if you go and spend some time in the BBC iPlayer forums, it’s eye-opening to see the sheer horror of the users, some of them technically not — you know, relatively early-stage users — but when it gets explained to them by some of the longer-using users of it, it’s concentrated misery. (laughter)


it’s a remarkable thing with them as well, there’s a lot of pain going on in the user forums, and some of the main technical support questions in there are “how do I remove Kontiki from my computer?” See, it’s not just while iPlayer is running that Kontiki is going, it’s booted up. When the machine boots up, it runs in the background, and it’s eating people’s bandwidth all the time. (laughter) In the UK we still have massive amounts of people who’ve got bandwidth capping from their ISPs and we’ve got poor users on the online forums saying, “Well, my internet connection has just finished, my ISP tells me I’ve used up all of my bandwidth.”

Q: It uses up their quota, but they can’t throttle it, they can’t reduce it —

Mark Taylor: No, they can’t throttle it. […] It’s malware as well as spyware.

And to top this off, there’s a (frankly insane) budget of UKP 130,000,000 to build this — that’s $266,000,000 — for something that could be built better by just hiring the guys behind UKNova and simply negotiating with the rights-holders directly.

Holy crap. Talk about a technical disaster masquerading as a solution to a business problem…

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  1. Posted October 24, 2007 at 18:47 | Permalink

    Complete aside, but the IE for Solaris really did exist. I remember downloading it out of morbid curiosity circa 2000.

    It rendered almost identically to IE for Windows, but didn’t have ActiveX support (shame!), and came with lots of files, which suggested it was emulated in a WINE stylee.

  2. Posted October 25, 2007 at 03:30 | Permalink

    I actually used IE on Solaris, Windows Media Player too. I forget what it was; IE4 on Solaris 7, maybe? It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. A little part of me laughed every time I launched it.

  3. FoxyLoxy
    Posted October 25, 2007 at 08:24 | Permalink

    No doubt there are days when you can’t think of anything constructive to put on a blog; I wouldn’t know, as I have better things to do with my time, most days.

    Be that as it may, when putting fingers to keyboard, it’s usually a good idea to have done some research, rather than just clone some ill-informed crap from somewhere with an axe to grind, throw in a few outraged exclamations and publish the hole thing without any further analysis.

    Mark Taylor, and his Groklaw interviewer’s comments are so full of holes as to be laughable; they make fools of themselves by spouting such inaccurate nonsense.

    “The BBC can use as much of your bandwidth as they please” ? Nope. Do me a favour, this is utter rubbish. I mean, get a grip, how could this hyperbole possibly be anything other than complete bollocks?

    “There is a hidden directory called “My Deliveries”” ? Nope, it’s a normal directory in full view, and you can change its name and location to suit your own preferences.

    Eric Huggers is “responsible for the iPlayer project” ? Nope. He was much too late an arrival at the BBC to claim that role; the project had already been in planning for ages.

    £130 million for the Kontiki based service? Nope. The figure you quote is the estimated expenditure for the whole darn project, which goes WAY beyond the little download service launched on Windows in the UK. If you took the trouble to do some reading, you’d know that the iPlayer project includes the same catch-up content being made available via streaming over various UK cable services and over IP via selected UK ISPs as well. These later development efforts are only now getting up to speed within the BBC’s Future Media & Technology teams.

    The BBC trust apparently aghast at the vehemence of the hordes of members of the public protesting about a single-platform solution? Nope. An orchestrated attempt to generate as much noise as possible by a bunch of techie types ? Yep. The BBC trust were probably amused by the self-rightious protestations they received in great volumes from a small number of snotty fanboys and disgruntled Linux geeks. They even set up an on-line petition at the UK Govt. website; I think they got around 16000 signatures, last I checked. But they won’t tell you that there are also petitions there for all kinds of really useful things, like publicly honouring the band Status Quo for their 40th anniversary year, or creating an annual Cornish Bank Holiday on St. Piran’s Day… (that latter one I fully support, actually).

    But hey! Don’t let the fuller picture get in the way of a lazy blog entry.

  4. sarah
    Posted October 25, 2007 at 10:51 | Permalink

    Hmmm – wonder who Foxy Lady works for…..

  5. FoxyLoxy
    Posted October 25, 2007 at 10:53 | Permalink

    I’m self-employed.