Three things have happened recently which make me think that the BBC’s iPlayer-for-Mac might actually be called iTunes. Here’s why.
BBC Worldwide started selling BBC TV programmes on the UK iTunes Store. This makes them the first UK broadcaster to do so. More importantly, it means that BBC Worldwide have embraced a (kind of) platform-agnostic DRM for their online sales of TV content, something that the BBC have so far been technically unable to do for downloads of their TV catch-up service, iPlayer. The programmes are available for Mac and PC users to purchase through the UK iTunes Store.
2) Apple recently started offering movie rentals on the US iTunes Store. This marked a major change in Apple’s approach to DRM. Previously, DRM-protected content purchased from the iTunes Store had been limited by the number of computers it could be played on, not by the length of time it could be viewed for. Movie rentals changed that model, and enabled Apple to apply DRM for a specific time period.
3) The BBC have been under pressure from the Open Source Consortium (OSC) – as well as many Mac users – to end the windows-only nature of the iPlayer download service. To date, Mac and Linux users have only been able to access a streaming version of the iPlayer, whereas Windows users can download programmes in a format protected by Windows Media DRM, and watch them off-line. The BBC Trust and the OSC recently agreed that the “promotion of Microsoft by the BBC” should end. This was followed by an announcement from BBC Director General, Mark Thompson, that (in the words of the BBC News website) the iPlayer will hit Macs in 2008. To be fair to the BBC, they have been trying to achieve this since way before the iPlayer launched – but have not previously found a practical way to do so on the Mac.
Now, the BBC haven’t yet announced how the Mac version of downloadable iPlayer content will be implemented. But it seems a reasonable assumption to put 1 and 2 and 3 together to come up with QuickTime DRM being key to the implementation. Certainly Ashley Highfield, the BBC’s Director of Future Media And Technology, seems very interested in the idea. And to be honest, the real problem for the BBC so far is that there hasn’t been a way to implement time-based DRM under Mac OS X. iTunes Movie Rentals finally gives them a possible approach.
So, if we assume that the new DRM capabilities introduced in QuickTime for movie rentals will in some way form the basis of a Mac iPlayer, the next question is, how will you access the iPlayer content? There seem three possible ways this could go:
A) iPlayer for Mac is embedded into the iTunes Store. This has been the only way to obtain Apple DRM content so far, and makes life much easier for Apple, as only iTunes needs to be able to interface with the store and download DRM content. However, this does mean that the BBC are not only tied to QuickTime, but are also tied to iTunes.
B) iPlayer for Mac is available on the Apple TV. This would still enable Apple to keep control over the DRM content, as the Apple TV is (effectively) a closed box. Now that Apple TV 2 has direct access to the iTunes store without the need for a computer, including time-limited movie rentals straight to the Apple TV, it wouldn’t be too much of a step to have time-limited iPlayer content on there too. However, this is really an “added bonus” for the BBC and Apple – “iPlayer on Apple TV” still isn’t a solution to “iPlayer on Mac”.
C) iPlayer for Mac is accessed via the iPlayer web site, and downloaded and viewed through an iPlayer Download Manager, as on Windows. This would most suit the BBC, as it would enable them to host everyone’s access to the iPlayer service in one place. However, this is fundamentally different to Apple’s approach to distributing DRM content via iTunes. Also, it’s a little-known fact that whilst QuickTime’s DRM policy allows applications other than iTunes to play protected audio files, it prevents any other applications from playing protected video files (at the moment). So, as it stands, any time-limited video downloaded from an iPlayer web site would only be playable by iTunes (and selected other Apple-manufactured applications such as QuickTime Player). This would need to change in order for the BBC to provide time-limited content without tying themselves to Apple applications. On Windows, iPlayer uses its own iPlayer Download Manager software to download and play the files. If the BBC were to make a similar application for Mac, it would need special permission from Apple in order to function in the same way as its PC counterpart. This goes both for downloading DRM-protected content (as Apple don’t currently let anyone else host QuickTime DRM-protected content), and also for playing DRM-protected video (for the reason mentioned above). If the BBC were to use the same peer-to-peer distribution model as for their PC download manager, they would also need to persuade Apple to allow QuickTime DRM content to be distributed in this way.
It seems to me that the most likely approach, and certainly the easiest for Apple and the BBC to implement, is option A – the iTunes distribution model – especially given the benefits to Apple of keeping all DRM downloads “inside” iTunes. Apple TV access might then be a bonus offering, in the same way as it is for movie rentals in the States. Even if the iPlayer web site were to be a starting-point for browsing available iPlayer content, the download links to acquire the content would still link to iTunes.
Assuming that the BBC and Apple take this route, what would be in it for Apple? Why would they want to offer (and presumably host) BBC iPlayer content for free in iTunes? Well, if every Mac user is accessing (and downloading) their free iPlayer content through iTunes, Apple then have a great opportunity when the week-long DRM time limit expires. It would be trivial – and very profitable – for Apple to offer a “buy and keep” icon next to the expired downloaded iPlayer files in iTunes. As more and more BBC users download their content via the convenient iTunes / iPlayer integration, more and more people can buy and keep the content via their existing iTunes Store accounts. And it wouldn’t be a huge leap of the imagination to see that the exact same offering could (and would) be available to PC users too. Users on both platforms could download time-limited iPlayer content, watch it on their Mac / PC / iPod / iPhone / Apple TV, and purchase it when it expires.
So, Apple get a bunch more sales of their existing BBC Worldwide content; the BBC get a solution to the iPlayer complaints of Mac users. In addition, the global iTunes stores could give BBC Worldwide a way to expand their TV sales outside of the UK, giving a new channel to sell the BBC’s content abroad (and make a larger contribution towards the licence fee in the process), without the costs of physically distributing this content.
Possibly this might all be a step too far for the BBC. The BBC and BBC Worldwide are different organisations with different remits, and the suggestion of converting free BBC downloads into paid BBC Worldwide purchases might not sit with their respective purposes. More generally, it would be a big ask for the BBC to hand over control of the distribution and playback of iPlayer content to Apple via iTunes (and would be considerably less within their control than the model they use on Windows). What remains to be seen is whether Apple would be willing to adapt their QuickTime DRM approach to suit the BBC; or whether the BBC will have to take the Apple iTunes approach for its free DRM-protected content.
Where this leaves Linux users is anyone’s guess.