Review of the BBC iMP beta
(Update – there is an official iMP message board in the works, but until it is released check out this interim thread)
I’ve just found out the BBC has (finally) publically announced the BBC iMP closed beta trial. The iMP (Interactive or Integrated, depending on who you ask, Media Player) service is the forerunner to the much-hyped myBBCPlayer that should be available for use this time next year.
I’ve been using the iMP client for a couple of weeks now whilst it has been in internal alpha and beta testing. But as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, I’ve been unable to blog about due to NDA.
So, what’s it like?
Well, the first big thing you notice is that the iMP is an all-in-one download/playout client, similar to the more earlier P2P applications such as eDonkey and WinMX. You find, download and watch the programmes all within the same window. This somewhat departs from what I would say is the more “current” approach of doing things, which is building a lightweight download client (such as BitComet or Azureus) and relying on users to find the symbolic links to the programmes via a conventional website(s). For anyone who is a “seasoned” P2P TV user, this is perhaps going to be the biggest difference to how they do things at the moment.
The other obvious peculiarity of the iMP player is that it’s been designed to look like a futuristic TV or media player on your desktop. Personally, I’m not taken by it – I’d much prefer it if it had a normal window look and feel. However I believe the reason the BBC has taken this approach is to make it look as non-threatening to first time would-be downloaders. As much as us early adopters might like to think we’re the target audience for iMP/myBBCPlayer, we’re not. It’s the average Joe who needs to be comfortable using iMP, otherwise the product is simply not going to be a success.
I’m not convinced that the thing has to look the way it does in order to feel “approachable” but I do agree that the interfaces on clients such as BitComet and Azureus can be off-putting to many.
Upon opening the iMP player, one is presented with a tabbed interface – Home, Guide, Search, Your Downloads and Player. Home is the tab shown by default and displays the 3 most popular shows, a large and inviting search box and some promotional boxes that highlight programmes the BBC is currently pushing (what we tend to call “puff boxes” in other parts of the BBC)
The iMP interface itself is actually built in HTML and served from the bbc.co.uk webservers – in fact it looks like this. It appears inside the iMP player via an embedded Internet Explorer object. This is slightly frustrating as even on a 2MB ADSL line, the http request/response delay usually breaks Jackob Neilson’s 1 second rule (a UI must response within 1 second in order to appear to uninterrupted and realtime). This frustration is further compounded by the lack of spiny IE logo; between pressing a button and receiving the resultant page it’s not clear whether anything is actually happening.
Clicking the Guide tab displays the television programmes available for download from today’s schedule in alphabetical order, with options to flick to yesterday’s or tomorrow’s schedule and change the channel. There is also the option to drill down to a specific BBC TV or Radio station.
Instigating a one-off download of a selected programme is achieved by pressing a common “Download” button. Located above it is a similar button which will “book a series” – download all programmes made available in that series over time.
The BBC doesn’t have the rights to make everything it broadcasts available for downloading, with films being notably being absent from The Guide.
The Search tab unsurprisingly does what it says on the tin.
The most apparent aspect of the download process is that you wouldn’t know it’s a P2P driven affair. Not only are you not explicitly told P2P technology is being used, but you are not even give the choice to set the desired upload/download thresholds. The only relevant piece of information displayed is a progress bar to display how much of the programme has already been downloaded.
The P2P technology within iMP is provided by Kontiki. I’m not exactly sure why the proprietary Kontiki framework is being used but my guess is that a “walled garden” P2P solution was desired that ensured only approved BBC content is available. Bit Torrent would have been my choice, but don’t forget this is a marketing exercise as much as anything else, and I guess Bit Torrent is too associated with the downloading of “illegal” programmes.
As already mentioned playback takes place within the iMP Player. This actually manifests itself as an embedded Windows Media Player object. Windows Media Player DRM is used to ensure that only UK users can watch the programmes, and that they may only be viewed within a 7 day window from when they were broadcast.
Many people will take issue with any DRM being used at all, but I can forgive the BBC with the UK-only aspect. Television programme distribution rights are dished out on a country-by-country basis – which means the BBC only has the rights to broadcast programmes within the UK. I personally think this concept will have to change in the future, but for the time being that’s how it is.
The 7-day limit does annoy me, as we all know that if you recorded the same programme on your VHS, DVD-R or PVR you could play it back when ever you like. The same is true if you download it via Bit Torrent. Considering iMP is up against all of these options, I can’t really see how the BBC can afford to be so picky. But again, my guess is that this is associated with the rights – the TV rights holders are still trying to hold on as much control as they can, despite the fact they risk being seen to be no different to the control-freak music industry.
Overall, What I like & dislike
- The fact the BBC is doing this – who else is?
- That it is being built to attract new users to the P2P/IP TV concept
- There is no alternative to the all-in-one approach
- The HTML driven interface
- No controls on the P2P aspect, especially no option to pause upload/download
Changes I would make
This bit is tricky, as I am involved in feeding back suggestions for the future of this project. So again, most of my specific ideas will come under NDA and not going to be repeated here (sorry). However, I think the following suggestions are obvious and would be shared by most people:
- Switch away from an HTML interface approach to a native windows UI (driven by XML, perhaps). Failing that, some visual acknowledgment that a link has been pressed would be useful.
- Alter the proposition so that it also appeals to the hard-core P2P fan (perhaps an advanced mode?). It’s important to bring these people “on-side” with a product that adds new value that cannot be derived from the existing Bit-Torrent/P2P options, otherwise it all seems a little futile. This is especially true when you consider that even ‘newbies’ become ‘seasoned’ over time, and begin to demand more sophisticated features that they see elsewhere (the AOL affect).
- Remove the 7 day limit.