iPlayer coming to iPad and fingers crossed for BBC apps

The BBC further underlined its commitment to both the online and mobile spaces with the launch of the third coming of iPlayer. At the press conference in London, director of BBC future media and technology, Erik Huggers, talked of the national broadcaster refocusing its online presence as its approach to and understanding of the Internet has matured.

A need for belt-tightening in the face of both a faltering economy and the uncertainty of a change in government is doubtless a shadow behind the looming cuts as well. So, exactly where does it leave the licence fee payers and what will this mean for getting these online services on our ever-increasing fold of connected gadgetry? We spoke to Mr Huggers to find out.

"The internet will remain at the heart of the BBC in the future, but we're going to be doing fewer things better; putting quality first. Until now, our online footprint has been growing rapidly and rather unconstrained in a way that's just not possible on TV and radio. The idea of spectrum scarcity that we have on these other media just doesn't exist on the Internet, so it's more important now to define the things that we are going to do and things that we aren't".

Huggers has already outlined in a BBC blog post a 25% cut to the £132 million online spending which the axing of a great swathe of the BBC's 400 top level domains will provide, but will this halt progress to the services consumers had been hoping for? There's clearly still plenty of development going on with iPlayer. The introduction of recommendation services, improved video quality, social networking and customisation will doubtless prove popular, but one of the big questions with Friday 28 June just around the corner is whether or not you'll be able to watch it on the iPad.

"The answer is yes. There will be a version of iPlayer accessible to the iPad at launch. There are two ways this can be done. The first is via the browser and that's the one we'll see as the iPad arrives. The second, and for me a far better way, is for it to be available through a dedicated application but that's not possible at the moment".

The issue standing in the way for Huggers and the BBC was the BBC Trust's decision to pull the launch of BBC News, Sports and iPlayer apps for mobile platforms after the initial announcement was made at MWC. Calls from other media groups to hold these apps back on the grounds of anti-competition reasons were heeded, and currently progress for the project lies suspended. So, why did the BBC try to launch them in the first place?

"You can read the service licence agreement online. We studied it carefully before making the announcement and there are provisions for the mobile space and for apps and it looked to be completely within our remit and purposes to create them, but this is not for us to judge. We are governed by the BBC Trust and they have the right to make the decisions as they see best. It's currently in discussion with the Trust and it's my hope that we will get these apps".

"My view is that a browser is just another application. So having dedicated applications for sport, news, iPlayer is just about re-purposing that same freely available content in a slightly different and more convenient way".

While many licence fee payers without smartphones may question why their money is being spent on developing a product that they cannot use, you'd be hard pressed to find the majority of consumers disagreeing with Huggers's feelings on the matter.

At least one BBC-involved issue currently embroiled in deep discussion seems to have moved a notch in the right direction, though, but with iPlayer losing its chief architect, Anthony Rose, to head up Project Canvas, we asked Huggers how he felt about the multi-channel TV platform and its recent signs of progress.

"Very happy with it", says the BBC director, without even having to think. "Delighted. It's very important for the future of the connected TV in this country and beyond. I think it's an amazing thing to be able to create a not-for-profit-system like this".

The question then arises, that if people can watch catch-up terrestrial channels right on their TV screens, would there still be room for iPlayer?

"iPlayer will absolutely carry on. We have it on 25 devices right now, the PS3, Wii and we would build iPlayer service on the Canvas platform as well".

Another free TV platform to have hit the news recently is the announcement of Google TV, with the search giant naming its partners in the project and outlining how it might work. What kind of impact could that have on the BBC's plans?

"Google TV is an interesting new product that shows the level of competition in market place. It shows that living room innovation is moving fast and I welcome it. I see Google TV as a fantastic receiver of BBC services".

Huggers' arms-open-wide-answer is almost identical to the response of anyone you speak to in the TV industry at the moment but, between Canvas and Google, one has to wonder if the BBC's efforts to add features to an online player of the future might be less interesting if the on-demand graphic frame is subsumed by other platforms altogether.

As for other iPlayer-free systems that already exist, are there any reasons why Xbox or Sky customers aren't able to enjoy the nation's favourite catch up service? The answer is predictably frustrating for both the BBC and consumers alike.

"It's the business reasons for these people", says Huggers with a sigh, palms up. "Our aim has always been to be product neutral. We would love to be on these platforms. What we need are partners on the other side willing to do this too. I'm sure they are considering it. We would be delighted to give the licence fee payers more value for money. We know that they have these platforms in their living rooms and we want to get iPlayer there for them too".

Over to you then, Mr Murdoch. Mercifully, the news is better for those outside of the UK looking to watch the BBC's video on demand programming.

"An international version of iPlayer is still very high on the agenda. We're working with BBC Worldwide on it because that's the service on which it would be deployed, but I can't tell you any more about that at the moment".

How that would be funded still remains to be seen, but it does look like we'll be hearing something on the matter soon. If it were to be available as an app overseas as well, then there really would be smiles all the way from the States to Samoa. Here's hoping the Trust comes through.



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