beebPlayer, iPlayer and Android: or why I am epically, fumingly angry at the BBC

tl;dr: The BBC have provided ultra-minimal flash-based iPlayer with reduced functionality on the latest Android 2.2 upwards, whilst simultaneously killing “beebPlayer” – a free app that provided (better) functionality on Android versions 1.5 upwards. All folk stuck on older (2.1 and below) Android systems will never have iPlayer again.

My context

I love the BBC – I must love the BBC because I still pay the license fee even though for the past 18 months I have lacked a functional TV, stopped watching television entirely, and will likely soon not possess a TV in any form. In these circumstances my love for the BBC expresses itself in two ways: I watch Top Gear via iPlayer, and I am a Radio 4 addict; the former is seasonal and therefore uninteresting, but the latter is far more notable because it’s long-term behaviour.

At 6am my clock-radio goes off to the pips and the Today programme. It stays on for the next three hours – reinforced by the ones in the kitchen and the bathroom while I am having coffee and a shave – and comes on again repeatedly for the News, “In Our Time”, the “Food Programme”, and “Great Lives”; it accompanies me driving back and forth to London listening to PM, the 6:30 Comedy Slot, or “Thinking Allowed”, and my reflexes are honed to a fine point for switching-off whenever “The Archers” or “Something Understood” comes on.

And yes, the Shipping Forecast lulls me off to sleep towards 1am.

My problem

My problem was that I never used to carry a radio with me, so visiting London overnight could not indulge my OCD listening behaviour and would become stressed and nervous as a result. And then – hallelujah – I bought an Android phone and discovered a little app called “beebplayer” by Dave Johnson – it didn’t matter in which dank city basement I was ensconced – where no signal of analogue or vile DAB could penetrate – so long as someone had set up WiFi and I could connect to it, I could listen to live Radio4… until today.

Today I rebuilt my Android system, performing a factory reset in the process; I went to reinstall beebplayer and found it missing, and then followed the trail to Dave’s terse statement:

I’m sorry to announce that I have removed beebPlayer from the Android Market and ceased all further development of this application.

At this point my heart sank. I cast around the web to locate a raw APK file (and found one, rather out of date) and then I did some more digging; when as if by magic David Madden of the BBC posted on their blog, admitting that they shut “beebplayer” down, and some of their rationale:

Tiggs questioned why the BBC took down the beebPlayer which worked on older Android devices and did not rely on Flash, and why we have replaced it with something that only works on newer devices and requires Flash.

The BBC’s syndication policy, which governs how the BBC makes its services available through other parties, clearly outlines the criteria for using BBC content. BeebPlayer was not a licensed distributor of BBC content online or on mobile. The BBC routinely looks for unauthorised usage of our brand and our content across all platforms and when we encounter it we work to resolve the issue. If on investigation we find that a company’s service proposition does not adhere to our standard licence terms and conditions, we will take steps to remedy the issue.

My Perspective

Let’s break that down into bullets:

  1. BeebPlayer was not a licensed distributor of BBC content online or on mobile
  2. The BBC routinely looks for unauthorised usage of our brand
  3. when we encounter it we work to resolve the issue
  4. If on investigation we find that a company’s service proposition [...] we will take steps to remedy the issue

And responding to them quickly:

  1. Beebplayer wasn’t a distributor, it was an end-user client; so is iPlayer going to get pissy if I use a non-standard browser to launch Flash in future? Or a non-standard Flash player?
  2. OK, yes, the BBC may have copyright on “beeb”, but that’s unrelated to the above, and addressable by renaming the software.
  3. So a “branding” issue is resolved by killing the software and pretending was a “distribution” issue
  4. But it wasn’t a company, it was free software produced by an individual and given away for free, to enable me to hear more BBC content. How precisely is this harming the BBC and the services for which I pay?

But what really grates with me is the Q&A in the next paragraph:

Why has the BBC replaced beebPlayer with something that only works on newer devices and requires Flash?

Using Adobe Flash 10.1 streaming on mobile delivers significant infrastructure efficiencies for the BBC, as we use our existing video and audio encoding plant to create the streams. We don’t need to install any new kit or set up any new servers. We just use what we already have to offer a higher quality BBC iPlayer on mobile experience.

Enabling Flash on Android 2.2 devices also means that all current and new devices that support Android 2.2 can get BBC iPlayer. These devices all use the same standard Flash player which means we can offer a consistently high quality playback across all of them. Previously we had to review and test BBC iPlayer on a device-by-device basis to ensure the right high quality experience. Now we can offer BBC iPlayer on mobile to a whole group of devices at once, which is clearly much more efficient.

…my emphasis on the latter.

Now here’s the thing: when my shower radio detunes while I am washing my hair, a little man from the BBC doesn’t magically pop out of the broom cupboard and retune it for me; when wet leaves used to block my Sky satellite signal, hordes of BBC lumberjacks utterly failed to wage war upon my neighbours damson trees in response; and when I use iPlayer through my laptop no BBC engineer arrives to replace the shite little speakers with which it is supplied, with some audiophile THX setup.

In short: it’s not the BBC’s problem to determine whether my radio-listening or tv-watching platform is up to some arbitrary metric of quality. Listening quality is my problem, and any argument predicated on the concept that the BBC should have veto over my platform is bullshit. The BBC should not be able to tell me what make of TV or Radio I must use, and likewise they should not be able to force me to use one functional software client over another, nor should they work to destroy other functional clients in order to enhance their lock-in.

Dave himself is actually pretty cool about the whole issue, but that’s OK because he’s allowed to be, plus he’s contributed, plus it’s not incumbent for me to agree with him.

I think this is shit, and I fear that this is the thin end of the wedge where iPlayer starts trying to lock people into using particular platforms to consume what ought to be open (and publicly funded) content. I think the next stop will be DRM (see the buzz about Project Canvas) and mandatory viewer registration – incidentally, have you noticed the new iPlayer “Sign In” button?

Maybe the counterargument is that the BBC would have to encode in more-than-Flash to support the older streams that beebPlayer uses; in which case beebplayer should die when they entirely pull the plug on those streams, and not before.

The State Of (Live) Play

If you have Android 2.2 or above, you can hand-type URLs into your browser that permit you to listen to live radio; the URLs are of the form:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/6music/listen.mp

What you get for typing-in the URL is a black screen with no information about what you’re hearing – not even a station name – and the pause and slider buttons which come up when you tap don’t actually achieve anything. Rob H of the BBC has documented this horrible hack in the comments on this page, but I only know about it because Dave mentioned it. I can only compare this to the arrant nonsense regarding the BBC’s desire to “ensure the right high quality experience”.

And if like most people you’re on Android 1.5, 1.6, or 2.0/2.1?

If so, the BBC have just taken away your content from you. Digital switchoff. Get used to it.

11 thoughts on “beebPlayer, iPlayer and Android: or why I am epically, fumingly angry at the BBC

  1. alecm Post author

    Synopsis:

    BBC iPlayer kills competing Android client, orphans older Android users

    The BBC have provided ultra-minimal flash-based iPlayer with reduced functionality on the latest Android 2.2 upwards, whilst simultaneously killing “beebPlayer” – a free app that provided (better) functionality on Android versions 1.5 upwards. All folk stuck on older (2.1 and below) Android systems will never have iPlayer again.

    I’ve pulled together the threads of the story at:

    http://dropsafe.crypticide.com/article/4195

    – but the original sources are at Dave Johnson (beebPlayer author’s) posterous blog:

    http://davejohnston.posterous.com/

    …with the BBC explanation for the takedown / Android strategy at:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2010/07/bbc_iplayer_on_android_update.html

    …and a vehement thread at:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2010/06/bbc_iplayer_on_mobile_a_new_ve.html

    Reply
  2. jon clarke

    Here! Here! Beebplayer was utterly brilliant and sorely missed to those who eagerly now search for it. The BBC I think are totally wrong to kill this service through what ever means they have used. I pay via my licence like millions of others. If a genius creates a way I can view its output for free and he doesn’t even make money from it either, then where is the harm in that for them. This is the type of creative spirit the founders of the Internet & even the boys at Google wanted to happen. British invention should be applauded not squashed by a bad tempered, jealous, inept Auntie. Dave, your fellow Beckenhamites salute you!

    Reply
  3. rmotters

    I still have Beebplayer on my phone, a Vodafone Magic, running Android 1.6.

    Live TV and live Radio still works. I can also still download some content from iPlayer. Some videos fail due to error messages, but it was always hit and miss.

    Why can’t deliver the BBC deliver the same content to Android Phones as they do to the iPhone.

    This works for other content providers, why not the BBC?

    Reply
  4. Richard

    See, I’m confused by all these people for whom the mobile 6music streaming stuff apparently works – even barely. When I click on the “Listen now” button, my phone (Nexus 1 with Android 2.2) switches to the media player, spins for a second or two, then pops up a dialog saying it cannot play the video. That’s it, no audio or video.

    What I do have is another (paid) app called Radiotime, which is actually using a ported-to-Android ffmpeg library to play one of the other streams – I would guess Windows Media.

    Do we all remember the good old days, when the BBC had ogg vorbis streams? Which were noticeably higher quality than the MP3-stream alternative? And which… er, wouldn’t play on Android either (at least pre-2.2), because the media library doesn’t support streaming ogg…

    Reply
  5. Pingback: dropsafe : NEWS: BBC served with FOIA request re: killing Beebplayer, iPlayer anticompetitiveness

  6. Dan

    Can’t say I disagree with any of this. It’s the lack of consistency from the BBC that I think annoys me most though (that and the fact that I also did the hard reset thing without realizing beebPlayer was no longer available).

    If the BBC were only supporting Flash on all devices then at least that would be somewhat logical, if not very inclusive. But Apple’s kit doesn’t (and apparently never will) support Flash, yet their devices get their own streams so why are Android users treated differently? The BBC’s position on this is indefensible as far as I can make out.

    Reply
  7. Alexander M

    You put this point across very well. The BBC really seem to have forgotten their place here. What they ought to be doing, like they’ve done in the past, is setting up open standards so that third-parties can create the means to access their content. That’s how radios, TVs and even web browsers work, right? The BBC was even instrumental in creating these standards: PAL, DVB, NICAM, Teletext, RDS, DAB, etc.

    Also, whatever happened to Dirac (the BBC’s very own MPEG-4 video codec)?

    Regarding the link you post at the end: that used to work for me on Android 2.1. It’s not now, though I’m not sure why.

    Reply
  8. Chris Jones

    This is terrible news. I was about to order my first smartphone – an Android 1.6 based handset – assuming I would be able to get iPlayer on it. Can’t beleive that the biggest (I assume) mobile OS is left out, yet Apple get their own non-flash based stream. I’m not paying £500 for an iPhone, so it looks as though I’ll have to order something like the Samsung S5620 Monte that does flash but then excludes me from accessing any other apps as it doesn’t run Android. I pay my license fee and in the modern world should be able to receive the BBC’s content on a popular mobile device.

    Reply
    1. alecm Post author

      I am using the MyPlayer app as an alternative; frankly I think the buffering is less good, but it serves the purpose…

      Reply
  9. Miriam English

    It is Adobe that is the problem. They are now in the business of selling paranoia. “You need to buy our locks or else somebody might be getting your broadcasts without authorisation.” Never mind that the BBC and here in Australia, the ABC, are supposed to be providing a service to the community, not propping up horrid corporations like Adobe.

    Reply

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