Daily Archives: July 13, 2007

Confusing the issues

What if the BBC when it started out as a state monopoly had broadcast using a proprietary format that could only be received using one manufacturer’s radio or television set, and was encrypted against reverse-engineering? We could have a monopoly manufacturer of radios and TVs. No marketplace, no technology innovation, none of the benefits of competition.

Yet that is exactly what they’re doing now with online contents. They’ve been developing something called the “iplayer”[1] to view TV-like contents delivered over the ‘net. The iplayer is available for recent-windows only, so everyone else (including users of older windows versions) are out in the cold. There can be no competition, no innovation.

People are naturally upset about it, and there’s a petition[3] on the UK govt petitions website:

The BBC plans to launch an on-demand tv service which uses software that will only be available to Windows users. The BBC should not be allowed to show commercial bias in this way, or to exclude certain groups of the population from using its services. The BBC say that they provide ‘services for everyone, free of commercial interests and political bias’. Locking the new service’s users into Microsoft Windows whilst ignoring those members of society who use other operating systems should does not fit in with the BBC’s ethos and should not be allowed.

Right up to a point, but the focus is misplaced. It’s open to a valid “where do we stop” reply: If the BBC supports Mac and Linux users, where does that leave BSD and Solaris? Then we can answer that with “Just support X11″. “What about OS2? RiscOS (with all its BBC associations)? New systems for new devices?” A line of argument that’s destined to remain inconclusive, and supports replying with “We have to draw a line somewhere”.

The key argument must be around Open Standards. The BBC’s core business is to provide contents, not technology. With the widespread availability of broadband internet, it makes sense for the BBC to make contents available online. But they should of course use open standards. Leave it to the marketplace to develop viewers for the contents. The BBC is plenty big and popular enough to generate a marketplace. We could naturally expect a choice of players, in exactly the same way as we have a choice of radio or TV sets from competing providers now.

And if not open standards, then at least a published standard. If they really must reinvent a wheel.

How about the iplayer? Given that (in a sane world) the BBC is using a published standard, one could perhaps argue that they should support the majority viewing platform[2]. But to cross-subsidise that using the BBC’s license-payers money is monopolistic and anticompetitive. Developers of media players for Windows should be rightly aggrieved.

[1] Doesn’t “iplayer” sound like something with an Apple trademark written on it?

[2] Is it even a majority platform when windows versions older than XP(?) are excluded?

[3] UPDATE – the petition’s creator has a blog here on wordpress!

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