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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…