Okay, so I was a bit put out at the number of days it took me to get the magic username and password needed to access the BBC's new on-demand service, the iPlayer. But then in fit of manic jounalistic activity earlier this week, when Sky bought up Sir Alan's company Amstrad, I managed to lose the damn thing by being a bit 'click-happy' with the old mouse. Surely I could just phone up and get a new one or a password reminder? Apparently not. According to the Belfast-based BBC helpline, I would have to register again and get another one. Neither they, nor the BBC development team in London (who send the passwords out), would be able to tell me what my original password was.
Damn and blast. Another week of waiting for me, it would seem.
But for those who have not been quite so trigger happy with their inbox, and have received their passwords, using the open beta version of the iPlayer has been a mixed experience. There had been a lot of grumbling on the DS forums about how long it has taken to send out passwords to those who registered when it launched last weekend. However, this does make sense as the BBC doesn't want to melt the UK broadband platform by having everyone log on and download Doctor Who at the same time.
The BBC says: "We need to model the kind of traffic the BBC iPlayer is likely to generate and if necessary share this with ISPs in the UK so that they can plan appropriately as user numbers increase. We also need to be able to provide the best help we can to new users who may have technical issues. Finally, we need to learn what kind of demand the release of the BBC iPlayer drives on our systems and processes."
Fair enough. But other DS users have been disgruntled about the fact that after years in planning, the iPlayer is still only a beta version, and is still one with a few too many problems to iron out. For a start, if the responses from our readers are anything to go by, the majority of users have had to spend a significant amount of time configuring their PCs to work with the iPlayer, from reinstalling Internet Explorer, to fiddling with Firewalls. Some report that even the IT departments at their workplace had trouble getting it to work. As one DS forum member put it: "Licence payers' money has gone into making this, so instead of messing us about we should get the product when it is meant to be 'launched'." Though others have reported that if you've already gone through the configuration battle with Channel 4's 4oD or Sky downloads, getting iPlayer up and running should be pretty easy.
Some DS users have questioned why there hasn't been more in the press about the iPlayer this week. The BBC says: "We have chosen initially not to market or publish widely the availability of the service as we wanted to see what the initial demand would be - and interest so far has been extremely strong." Erm, excuse me BBC, what was the June press conference about at the The Hospital (in no way a low key venue) with director-general Mark Thompson, director of BBC Vision Jana Bennett and director of future technology Ashley Highfield all in attendance? The room was so packed with journalists people had to stand at the back. July 27 was the 'big day', was the feeling one was left with as we departed. "As big a revolution in broadcasting as the introduction of colour television 40 years ago," Thompson said of the iPlayer.
As well as anger from the Apple Mac brigade about the fact they can't use the iPlayer yet, (hang in there, the BBC is working on it), there are many who that feel that it is wrong that a public corporation like the BBC should have "got into bed" with a major private corporation like Microsoft by only launching the beta test on PCs (although Windows Vista users will still have to wait for their versions too). The Open Source Consortium has raised a formal complaint with regulator Ofcom as it believes the BBC is unfairly "locking the public" into Microsoft operating systems in this way. Open Source chief executive Rick Timmis said: "We've got a broad and varied market place and it seems counter productive to round all your chickens in one pen."
So for those who have managed to get it to work, what has the iPlayer been like? The service uses VeriSign's Kontiki platform, the same white label peer-to-peer technology that Channel 4 uses for its on-demand service 4oD. As a P2P service, the speed relies on the number of people using it to make it faster. So thirty minutes of viewing is currently taking some users around two hours to download. But with no indication of the time frame before the download is complete, it leaves users unsure whether the iPlayer is actually doing anything. I mean would you turn on your TV and expect it to say "Sorry you can't watch Eastenders yet. It'll just be a while, but we can't tell you how long though"? You'd say forget it and go to the pub. One DS reader suggested including a 'downloading' indicator light. You have one to let you know your TV and video are on; why not video-on-demand? Picture quality has also been reported as pretty average for a computer screen, with many commenting that the quality from streaming sites is much better.
While the BBC iPlayer will certainly be incredibly popular - mainly due to the BBC brand and its quality of content - it's going to have to go some way to match up to the user experience on other broadband TV platforms such as ITV.com, who have wisely opted for a (near enough) instant play option on their TV platforms. If broadband is going to work as a platform for the television industry in the long term, it's going to have to replicate linear TV as close as it can. Turn it on, tune in and watch. No download, no installation of a piece of software. The BBC clearly has a bit of work to do - that is the point of a beta version - but leaving it too long before the beta version turns into an alpha one, and the iPlayer could well frustrate a lot of licence fee payers to the point where they lose interest in the process. Now, why haven't I received my new email?....