If you'd held your breath from the point the BBC's iPlayer was announced until now, you'd be stone-cold dead, and would have been for some time. The BBC has struggled through all sorts of regulatory approval for its Web-based, on-demand TV catch-up service, but it's finally here and you can use it from 27 July. Probably.
The only hurdle now is the huge demand we're likely to see on launch date. The BBC is going to be keeping a careful eye on the number of signups, and will pull the plug if the whole thing looks like it's going to collapse in on itself. In order to defy protests when this happens, the 27 July launch is being called a public beta, but the code is finalised now, so there won't be further features added or anything like that.
What distinguishes iPlayer from other on-demand services such as 4oD is the enormous amount of material that will be available. The BBC claims it isn't just putting up a few shows -- it's the whole of its schedule. This means it's had to persuade its broadcast company, Red Bee, to change how it transmits things, and to include encoding for iPlayer as part of the transmission. The only things that won't appear on iPlayer are shows bought from the US, such as Heroes, and there won't be any movies either, but the Beeb is promising that major events such as the Euro 2008 football tournament will be available.
The BBC bods we spoke to were also keen to point out that iPlayer is a huge part of the BBC's on-demand strategy, but it isn't the be-all and end-all. Indeed, it's in negotiations with Virgin Media to make its on-demand catalogue available via cable. They also expressed an interest in hybrid IPTV-Freeview boxes that could download video over the Internet while still proving a regular Freeview service for live TV -- much like BT Vision.
From a technological point of view, the iPlayer uses Windows Media DRM to protect content. There will also be GeoIP restrictions to make sure no one outside the UK can see the video. According to the BBC's tests on a 2MB broadband connection, a 30-minute programme will take around 30 minutes to download and the bit rate will be somewhere between 750kbps and 1Mbps at launch.
iPlayer will allow you to download a programme up to seven days after it's broadcast and watch it up to 30 days later. Once you've started watching it, you get seven days to finish. After these deadlines pass, the file is rendered unplayable and as useless as a Blu-ray disc in an HD DVD player.
Crave also asked the BBC's head of Future Media and Technology, Ashley Highfield, if there was any hope for high-definition content. He was quite clear that he sees iPlayer as a potential way to serve high-definition video. So it sounds hopeful that those of us without Sky or Virgin may eventually be able to see some of the BBC's fantastic HD content.
Initially only Windows PCs will be supported, but Mac support is due this year, as well as Vista-specific functionality. The iPlayer will also support streaming video before next year, which means you will be able to watch live TV, much as you can with radio at the moment. -Ian Morris