Sunday, August 28, 2011

BBC's Global player

The Global BBC iPlayer is an iPad app that was launched less than a month ago in 11 countries in the EU. These are Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Ireland, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland. The Global iPlayer is different than the equivalent local version that was released in the UK for some time now. Mind you, you actually have to use a UK based IP to stream content into the local app. And the content you get  is quite different than Global's. I can actually watch that local content (free) on a personal computer via any popular browser, but I need to trick the buggers via VPN. I do the same for Hulu, by the way. I pay for the VPN but others I know do that for 'free' from somewhere in the 'open source' world of goodies.

The Global gives access to British TV shows and movie productions that have been quite popular abroad as well. And were made in the last 50-60 years! Fascinating, innit? About 1500 programming hours were apparently available on day one and BBC plans to add another 100 hours per month on average.

I have no idea whether a subscriber in one of the countries mentioned would still be able to access the service from a different country. In other words, would BBC continue checking incoming IPs even if a caller's userid validates properly? I'd imagine the only restriction they'd typically apply would be at that iTunes purchase point. The userid validation. I mean, that would be the reasonable thing to do, right?. Think of someone who bought the app in say, Austria, paid a month's subscription (6.99€), and then drives south over the border to Slovenia for a couple weeks' vacation. Shouldn't such a user be able to watch the shows from there, then? Of course he should! But wishful thinking is one thing, DRM is another. Logic is rather scarce in DRM related matters. Only greed and shortsightedness. I plan to test this very soon and will update the post, unless someone else finds out first and posts a comment.

I only found out yesterday about the official launch of the Global player in this country. Since I've often been addicted to many of the series that came out of BBC, and in all sorts of genres mind you, I went out promptly to buy a month's subscription of the service. It works exactly like any other iTunes in-app purchase transaction. You click some OK's and Agree's and Bob's your uncle. Good to go.

IMNSHO, BBC is indeed the best broadcasting team in the history of mankind... I'm saying this despite my occasional lack of respect for the British. Their iPlayer content is organized in a number of ways and if you still can't find your preferred series or episode, they entertain you with a pretty efficient 'search' function.

The quality of streaming is stunning, that's the least you could say. I have to admit though, my downstream speed gets pretty close to 100 Mbps (fiber), so this might be a reason for the exceptional streaming quality. I have the slight impression though that the Brits must have worked out their own compressing algorithms. It's too good to be true by conventional streaming standards. You pick up your episode and within literally 1 to 2 secs, maybe less, it fires the display and never looks back. Fluent and full screen on 25 fps just like on TV. No artifacts, streaming blockages, lost frames, pixelization, or the usual BS that we are used to see in Vimeo, YouTube and many others. I'm sure they've done some low level native coding in a number of areas to get better results than the standard iOs libraries. Of course, being the BBC, they might have probably managed to clear their own coding with Apple much easier than a plain vanilla 3 man and a dog software developer company from around the corner, if you know what I mean. They themselves admitted such in the Guardian article referenced below. That particular point concerned non-interruption of the download function (offline viewing) while the iPad fell into 'hibernate' mode. Their player user interface also looks slightly different that what you are used in Quicktime and other popular player interfaces. The remaining interface is not something to write home about. Functional, simple, does the job. Déjà vu. Only issue though, the app doesn't seem to natively support Airplay, so the only way to stream your content into a big ass flat TV monitor is via a VGA port (not cool - works fine, but with no TV sound unless you link them with a separate audio cable), or by connecting to one of your TV's HDMI ports (cool, but I haven't tested that yet; HDMI carries the sound too, that's why I said 'cool').

They also offer the possibility to download shows for offline watching. I didn't try that because I don't believe in large storage iPads (mine has got the minimum storage available). I'm sure though, it'll work fine.

In the meantime, I watched shows I haven't seen in 20 years and more, like Only Fools and Horses (work), Yes Minister, and Yes Prime Minister, Absolutely Fabulous, and the recent movie about the story of the 1985 Band Aid World concert 'When Harvey met Bob'. Kinda nostalgic. Reminded me of the 70s and 80s and about having been young at one time. With a good sense of humor. Where has all the time gone?

Only thing that bothered me so far; for us, non-UK-English native speakers, I haven't been able to spot English subtitles anywhere in the app yet. In their UK programming the BBC are quite keen in Teletext subtitles (888) for those with hearing disabilities, and it seems strange that they launched the player internationally without any support. BTW, no, it's not yet available in the US. No big deal. Hulu and Netflix are also released to US audiences only. DRM payback time!
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