I submitted this as a response to Nick Reynolds’s post “Freedom? Open Source?” Tell me why?, and I think it’s worth republishing here.
Open source doesn’t matter, but open formats and protocols matter a lot. By developing the iPlayer for specific clients, the BBC is picking winners. The funding arrangements and uniquely powerful position of the BBC mean that this is not the kind of market distortion that it should be involved in.
For example, why is there an iPlayer for the iPhone, but not for Android phones? The BBC went to a lot of (ultimately futile, believe me) effort to make sure that other clients could not gain access to the iPhone h.264 media. And yet these videos play perfectly on my Android handset! If I spoof an iPhone, download a video, and transfer it to my HTC Hero phone, it plays flawlessly.
If the BBC had simply developed an HTTP/h.264 version of the iPlayer, both Apple and Android devices would enjoy the iPlayer already—as, significantly, would any other capable new handsets that appear on the market. The only thing stopping the iPlayer working on Android today is the bizarre decision of the BBC to reject clients that don’t have an iPhone user agent string and which don’t follow the CoreMedia framework’s chunk downloading behaviour. Why is Apple special?
Following the article’s logic, I am being “obscure” by not choosing an Apple phone. Really? Everything is obscure at first. Unless you accept some kind of Fukuyama-style end of history for operating systems, then the Microsoft/Apple duumvirate is not the last word—but it’s going to be harder for contenders that don’t have the BBC’s blessing. “Should I get Android or iPhone?” “Well, the iPhone has the iPlayer!”
Even the desktop offering is hobbled by being tied to a single software provider. Flash works well on Windows. It works inefficiently on OS X. It … sometimes works on Linux. Linux-based systems have run on 64-bit processors for a long time, but it took Adobe a long time to catch up—indeed, they appeared to have only one developer on the project—and the 64-bit version of the Flash Player is still not out of beta as far as I’m aware.
Once again, I’m probably being “obscure” by not just running Windows. I don’t know. But if the price of entry to the iPlayer means relying on proprietary software from a US company, that’s a poor showing for the BBC.
The BBC has the power to create new opportunities for software companies at home and abroad. Instead, it’s just propping up the existing powers. That’s a waste, and a shame.
Who is the enemy that DRM seeks to defeat, but the regular user? It’s not the BitTorrent or Usenet uploader (he can get it off Freeview more cheaply and easily). It’s not the professional pirate (professional piracy is harder hit by the internet than legitimate suppliers!). It’s the person at home who didn’t get round to watching last week’s episode. If he’d had the presence of mind to record it off the air on his DVR or even on a video cassette, he’d be fine. But no: the internet is magical and special.
Open source software can’t implement DRM in any meaningful sense, but it doesn’t matter: it doesn’t really work all that well in closed source software either. I can describe how to bypass the iPlayer’s current proprietary “content protection” scheme in a few paragraphs. It’s laughable.
I’ll leave you with a personal testimony. Do you know why I bypass the content protection to download stuff off the iPlayer? So that I can watch or listen to it on my own terms in my own time on the devices I already own. It’s that simple.