iPlayer on iPhone, Bravo!

The BBC today released the iPlayer for iPhone (and iPod touch), and I have to say, bravo. It’s not perfect by any means, but it provides an excellent experience. I’ve been a very vocal critic of the BBC, and especially the iPlayer, in the past. But it’s never been a personal vendetta. I’ve called them on things I think they’ve done badly. Likewise, I’ll praise them when they get something right. I’ll still offer some suggestions for improvement, but that’s in everyone’s interest really.

In case you’re wondering, to access the iPlayer from your iPod Touch or iPhone, just go to the main iPlayer page and play a video. It should (more on that later) work.

iPlayer on the iPhone

What it does well

The iPlayer on iPhone actually does alot of things well. Firstly, the video quality is superb. Sound can be a bit hit or miss, with the usual compression hiccups but generally, very watchable. Enjoyable even. To get some idea of what makes this possible, have a look at a behind the scenes post on one of the BBC blogs. To make the feat more impressive, the content also seems to stream incredibly smoothly. This is aided by a pre-load feature, something that’s bizarrely missing from the Flash iPlayer. What this means is that when watching the video, you can pause it for a few seconds while your iPhone loads content ahead of your current point. If you wish, you can pause the video until the entire thing is loaded before even starting to watch, ensuring a smooth run through. Quite why this is missing from the Flash version of the iPlayer, I don’t know, but seeing how usefull it is here makes it omission all the more painful.

What it does badly

Once again, the interface for finding content is troublesome. The BBC have claimed that one of the reasons they chose to develop for the iPhone before any other mobile device was that the iPhone displays the iPlayer interface so well. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. What may be true is that the iPhone deals with the clunky iPlayer interface better than any other mobile device. They really aren’t the same thing though. Finding content is still difficult and verging on counter-intuitive. This is further hampered by the fact you’re on a smaller screen, making the already difficult links even harder to see, read and interact with (Fitts’s Law anyone!?!?).

Unfortunately, the user experience is damaged even further by the unavailability of a large percentage of the videos. Out of about 10 I tried, only 2 actually worked. This is down to the aforementioned technical limitations, presumably. Two things really stand out about this. Firstly, why are they showing me content that I can’t actually access? They show you a little thumbnail, let you click it, but then, nothing. Secondly, it seems like the entire front page is unavailable. So when you go to the iPlayer site on your iPhone, pretty much all the videos that get pushed in front of your face are unavailable. This creates a somewhat frustrating experience, to say the least.

No doubt that once this delivery method becomes more established, and the BBC get their processes tightened up, this will begin to erode as a problem.

Some thoughts

The content is being sent to your iPhone in .h264 compressed MP4 format. Generally, this is the best format for video streamed over the web. It’s highly compressed, yet retains a decent amount of quality and is widely supported. Why can’t the BBC offer this format to everyone? There doesn’t appear to be any DRM involved (no deal has been announced with Apple to license Fair Play, and you don’t actually store the content locally), so what’s the deal? On the plus side, you can fake your user agent to view the source. At the moment all you get is a broken Quicktime file if you try and download the iPhone version, but no doubt someone will figure it out fairly shortly.

The other concern I have is again with the interface. While small steps have been made in their efforts to improve it, it’s still some way off being anywhere near good. Putting the same interface on an iPhone’s screen makes things even worse. Would it really have been much work to quickly knock up a decent interface for the iPhone? There’s plenty of developer kits and guidelines out there. And if you think the iPhone is bad, imagine trying to use the damned thing on any of the other mobile devices they’ve got planned. Even if my Nokia N95 was supported, it would be plain unusable because of the interface.

Overall, though, I’m feeling up beat about the iPlayer’s future. The iPhone is the perfect test bed for it. A relatively small, tech savvy group of users who are predetermined to consume more media than the average phone user. A group of people who aren’t afraid to try out new things. The device itself also feels almost made for this sort of task. Video, regardless of source, is smooth and crisp. if the iPlayer’s content is going to look good anywhere, it’s here.