BBC Helps Push Adobe Air Mainstream

iPlayer LogoWhen the BBC initially launched the iPlayer, it was a Windows only service that used Windows DRM to baffle its users.  At the time, the BBC stated, and then retracted, and then was forced into restating that a download version of the iPlayer would be available on OSX and Linux machines before the end of 2008.  Many, myself included, were sceptical, but last week they proved the doubters wrong.  I’d encourage you to read the linked article for a bit of background.

The BBC have decided to use Adobe’s Air platform as the basis of the new download iPlayer.  This includes Adobe’s proprietary DRM solution, FMRMS.  All things considered, this seems, on the face of it, a wise move. It will allow the BBC to eventually move to a single version of each show (eventually, more on that in a bit) as well as paving the way for HD content (Adobe Air and the FMRMS support .h264 HD).

The Wider Implications

There are wider implications to the BBC’s decision.  Initially users will have to deal with a new platform.  People are used to Flash, and by association, Adobe, so it shouldn’t be too galling.  It is, however, something out of the norm.  Your typical Windows users is used to downloading an application and just having it work, this whole “runtime” deal may be a step too far for some.  This is likely to become an issue should the BBC decide to discontinue support for the Windows DRM download service, forcing users of that to move to the Air tool – a move which seems inevitable. Not only will the idea of a runtime be introduced, but also these users will be moving to a completely new application.  It’s much more than your average upgrade.

One of the biggest winners in this situation has to be Adobe.  While Air has some potential, all it’s really been used for up until this point is some nifty widget like applications. Nothing really meaty.  Most of the applications created for it have also been fairly niche, limiting its distribution and appeal.  The BBC iPlayer is about as mainstream as it gets online, it’s huge and everyone in the UK uses it* (*completely made up statistic). What I’m trying to convey here is that the BBC iPlayer is going to open up Adobe Air to a whole new audience.

In the article linked to above, the author identifies some new features that are likely to be heading to the Air Download iPlayer in the near future.  What isn’t mentioned, nor implied, are the other opportunities that may open up to the BBC using Adobe Air as a platform. You can, for example, see an Adobe Air application focusing on the BBC’s Sports coverage being very successful, with live scores, news, video and audio streams all rolled into one app.  The same goes for news. The current disparate set of tools, applications, widgets and web pages could be consolidated and simplified, providing a more rounded, integrated solution to the end user whilst also reducing maintenance costs. Again, this seems inevitable.

What’s on the Table?

This is a big deal.  The BBC is a major player when it comes to content provision and creation, and they wouldn’t have arbitrarily chosen the go with Adobe without some sort of deal being struck. This isn’t me being cynical, or paranoid, just realistic.  I’ve been involved in large deals before, and big customer simply get better deals than smaller ones.  They can use leverage and size to their advantage.

For the BBC’s Adobe Air iPlayer to work, Adobe and the BBC have to be aligned in their visions.  For Adobe this is the vision for Adobe Air as a platform, and for the BBC it’s meeting license fee payer’s needs whilst upholding the values of the corporation as defined by the BBC Trust. For the BBC this comes down to value for money, and maintaining one application that functions cross platform fits that bill nicely.  To enable the BBC to do that, Adobe would have had to commit to a development roadmap that allows the BBC to maintain this platform independent development regime. That means keeping the Windows, OSX and Linux versions of Adobe Air close enough together in terms of features and releases.  Once one version slips away from the others, the BBC lose the advantage of using Adobe Air as a platform.

We’ve already seen the first evidence of this, with Adobe Air version 1.5 for Linux being released the same day as the iPlayer download app – this is clearly no coincidence.

The Application Itself

BBC iPlayer on OSXI’ve been playing with the iPlayer download Air Application on OSX for a few days, and unfortunately some of the problems present in the Windows Media version have been carried over.  Namely the still-confusing DRM (why one show needs three expiration dates is beyond me) and the slightly disappointing video quality. There’s also no integrated browser, despite this being a selling point of Adobe Air, and you get some bizarre error messages (even after fully downloading a show, you can still get a message saying it’s “Temporarily Unavailable”).

It appears as if the DRM will continue to be a problem into the future.  I don’t have a problem with DRM per se, but I find the BBC’s implementation confusing at best and at worst obstructive. Just to summarise, each show can be downloaded up to seven days after airing, then you have up to 30 days to watch it, or, seven days after you’ve started watching it. So for every show there’s three expiration dates, I just don’t see why it needs to be so complicated and restrictive, and I’ve yet to see any justification that squares that circle (I understand revenue protection, but there are better ways of doing it).

The other “issues”, while being fairly minor, all sound like they are being addressed.  High quality streaming (although the claimed “near TV” quality sounds disappointing when compared to other survives HD quality) will be a welcome addition, and talk of scheduling downloads and series subscriptions seem like obvious additions. It’s also important to remember that this is a beta produce, available only through the BBC Labs, so the odd error here and there is easy to forgive.

Overall, the new iPlayer Desktop is a welcome addition, and I can certainly seem myself using it more than the web based player.  The reliability of knowing you can download and then watch a show, as opposed to streaming it and risking losing connection part way through, is relieving. It also seems a step up from the Windows desktop player, which seems a clear signal of intent. I’m impressed, although surely not as impressed as Adobe.