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!

Posted on July 13, 2007, in bbc, iplayer, rants, uk. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. >> 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

    Whilst I personally would rather see a DRM-free platform agnostic version of the iPlayer, I don’t think this is a comparable analogy.

    The Microsoft Windows XP only iPlayer doesn’t take away anything from what the BBC already offers.

    That means old fashioned analogue TV that can be captured on VHS or recordable DVD, and DTT, DSat and DCable as well, with all the different ways that the broadcast stream can be captured from them.

    The iPlayer is an additional service, not the only service.

  2. Martin, good point, but only up to a point. Maybe an even closer analogy would have been to say “When they introduced FM radio”, as that new transmission medium was an *alternative* to AM. But apart from the inherently higher quality, advances like stereo sound followed from the new medium.

    And as for where a new medium is likely to lead today, consider the current proliferation of digital-only channels.

    Not that I have any interest on my own account. The only time I’ve ever had a TV was when I lived in Germany, and it came with the furnished flat I rented there. It was somewhat useful in helping to improve my spoken german. But not so much as to persuade me to get a telly when I later lived in Italy and had another language to learn.

  3. Check out this blog post by Ian Betteridge.

    A future where:

    “The BBC’s core business is to provide contents, not technology. …. Leave it to the marketplace to develop viewers for the contents. ”

    looks to have been regulated out of the DNA of the BBC.

  4. Ooops – URL not cleanly added – this is the raw URL for Ian Betteridge’s blog post:

  5. Niq: “But apart from the inherently higher quality…”

    And this, surely, is a bit of a red herring. iPlayer certainly isn’t “higher quality” than broadcast. It’s not even more convenient (even for Windows users) than simply recording what you want to watch. Thanks to multi-channel and multi-repeats even if you forget to record something it’ll be on again within 7 days. And the video quality is certainly lower than broadcast.

    Ofcom estimates that services *like* iPlayer (ie including competitors) will account for a total of 3% of viewer hours by 2011. This is a niche, additional service, not the digital future.

    But ultimately, don’t look the BBC to be an innovator – it no longer has the remit from the government to develop new markets except in small niches (like iPlayer) and where there is no commercial alternative (ie where there is no real demand).

  6. “And this, surely, is a bit of a red herring.”

    Well, it was only an analogy where a new medium was *in addition to* an established medium. Just drop the higher quality clause if it’s inappropriate.

    “Ofcom estimates …”

    This smells of self-fulfilling prophecy. Excluding technophiles will limit the iplayer. But I’m sure Joost would disagree with the premise that entertainment over the Internet will remain a small niche, or that there is no commercial alternative or demand.

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