BBC iPlayer meets the iPhone and iPod Touch

March 7, 2008 – 8:25 pm | by Benjamin Watt

If you live in the UK (or really anywhere outside of the USA), as I do, then you’re maybe aware that we’re often left behind when it comes to developments in being able to watch TV and film over the web on our computers, with big announcements from Apple and Microsoft often applying only to the USA in the first year, possibly the second, culminating in a watered down, not quite so good version for the UK.

But lately that’s changed, thanks to the BBC. When the BBC iPlayer hit beta late July 2007, I quickly signed up to see what it could offer over similar software that had already been provided by Channel 4 for about a year. Initially, it was a little disappointing. Limited programming available, extremely basic navigation, sometimes flakey searching, and the need to use Internet Explorer to select programmes for download. Ugh. But it’s primary function, to download TV programmes that you may have missed for up to a week after it was shown, worked well enough.

But gradually it got better, and when it launched on Christmas Day 2007, the guide was better designed, and most programmes shown on any of the BBC channels were now available. Also, whereas before you’re only option to watch a programme was to download it on a Windows XP PC, you could now stream anything on Windows, Linux or Mac, and Vista had joined the ranks of officially supported download operating systems (you had to go a little out of your way to get hold of the software under Vista before this).

Since then, things have got even more interesting. The guide continues to get better at highlighting shows for you, and that’s good, as is support for the Firefox internet browser for downloading programmes, but today saw a particularly interesting development that I want to point out.

BBC iPlayer beta for iPhone & iPod Touch

If you go to the BBC iPlayer site from an iPhone (which I don’t have), or the iPod Touch (which I do have), there’s now a pink “Beta BBC iPlayer for iPhone” tag. The BBC has blogged about it on their BBC Internet Blog, which contains comprehensive information about how they’re doing it. That’s about all the help you’ll get at the moment from the BBC though, as there’s only a small selection of programmes that can actually be played on the device today, and all programmes on iPlayer are listed regardless of their compatibility with the iPhone/iPod Touch. There’s no indicator as to what will or won’t work, and most at the moment don’t, as you can see here.

BBC iPlayer beta for iPhone & iPod Touch

That’s no doubt going to change in the coming days as more programmes get encoded in the Quicktime format that’s required for you to stream a programme, but now it’s a bit like walking around in the dark where there are lots of light switches, but very few that work.

Still, when you finally hit upon a compatible programme, it works superbly over a WiFi connection. At the time of writing this post, only one of the six ‘Featured’ programmes do work, and there’s no real pattern that I can see in the full list, between those that do and those that don’t.

BBC iPlayer beta for iPhone & iPod Touch

Above you can see the initial page when you strike it lucky and find a working programme. There’s a snapshot from the show, and a big blue and white play arrow can be seen in the bottom right. Clicking on it, quickly whizzes you off to the iPhone or iPod Touch’s movie player, and the programme almost instantly starts to stream to you.

BBC iPlayer beta for iPhone & iPod TouchBBC iPlayer beta for iPhone & iPod Touch

The quality is suprisingly good, both video and audio come through nice and clearly, it’s definitely very watchable. And when you get bored of the programme, or it finishes, you just tap ‘Done’ and you’re straight back in iPlayer ready to watch more, or to write a blog post about it.

BBC iPlayer beta for iPhone & iPod TouchBBC iPlayer beta for iPhone & iPod Touch

If you’ve got either an iPod Touch or iPhone, it’s well worth having a play. Programmes I found that worked were at least one episode of Eastenders (I only watched the first couple of seconds, but it seemed to be about one of the characters trying to make ironing look cool), last week’s “Friday Night with Jonathan Ross” (probably funny at times, I didn’t watch much of it), and a BBC Politics documentary in the “Storyville” series that looked so dull I didn’t bother taking a shot of it. Well not of it playing anyway.

BBC iPlayer beta for iPhone & iPod Touch

I’m interested to see where this all goes, obviously streaming is nice when you have WiFi available, (and if you’re near one of “The Cloud“‘s hotspots, it’s free for BBC content) but downloading to the iPod Touch or iPhone is preferable in all other cases. You can do that now through the iTunes store with some BBC programmes, but it costs money and there aren’t many programmes available. Making the BBC programmes available to rent for free would seem the logical thing to do if the BBC can do a deal with Apple. Even the Apple TV could actually maybe become useful if it was supported too. At a push.

It’s such a good idea in fact, that the BBC already thought of it almost immediately after Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, announced movie rentals on iTunes. In fact, the BBC’s openness and honesty about their plans for BBC iPlayer and other areas of development on the web, often through their BBC Internet Blog, is what makes them such an interesting company to watch.

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