Digital TV: iPlayer's play for online eyes

The BBC hiring Kazaa's Anthony Rose to run its online media player was like the Royal Navy signing up pirate Jack Sparrow, writes Andrew Keen
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The Independent Online

With his long, wavy hair, youthful half-smile and impish build, there's something of the raffish pirate about Anthony Rose, the BBC's head of digital media technology and the man in charge of the iPlayer.

It's not just that Rose physically resembles the Jack Sparrow character immortalised by Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. There's also an intellectual resemblance. Before the Australian-born Rose was appointed to his post last September, he had been the chief technology officer for six years at Kazaa, the notorious peer-to-peer website that has been the subject of many anti-piracy copyright lawsuits since its creation back in July 2002. Hiring Rose, then, was rather like the Royal Navy signing up Jack Sparrow to run its anti-pirate operations in the Caribbean.

So what was the BBC doing hiring somebody from a website with such a history? Surely running the eminently law-abiding digital technology at the BBC is an entirely different proposition from managing the much dodgier Kazaa's technology?

"In one sense [the two jobs are] completely different, and in one sense completely the same," Rose says. Kazaa's technological focus was "all about user-generated content", he says, but it still has a lot in common with the BBC: a focus on peer-to-peer software, millions of online consumers and huge amounts of bandwidth.

Rose was hired last year by Erik Huggers, the BBC future media and technology group controller, to take responsibility for iPlayer, the flagship software that is changing the way people receive BBC radio and television content. Rose says that the BBC was looking for someone with expertise in digital-rights management, peer-to-peer technology and mass-market consumer applications. "I guess somebody went through their Rolodex, ticked the boxes for me and then gave me a call in Australia to come and work at the BBC."

It was a smart call. Rose had an excellent reputation at Kazaa, and he's exactly the type of experienced yet youthful person that the BBC needs to help transform it into one of the world's leading innovators of digital technology. To test Rose's powers of clarity, I asked him to explain the iPlayer as if to somebody not well versed in digital technology. "It's basically just a webpage on the BBC website, , where, within a few clicks, you can get all of the BBC's video and audio programming," he says. "You don't need to install anything. It's free. And it works on PC, Mac and Linux computers, as well as on the Apple iPhone and Nintendo Wii."

Rose sees the iPlayer as a kind of artificially intelligent friend – a smarter, more personalised version of our old trusted VCRs – that helps us watch television and listen to the radio more efficiently. The iPlayer automatically remembers programmes you've watched before, he says. "It's a completely new model that emerges on the internet that will supplant existing models."

Rose says that it is "very significant" that seven per cent of people use the iPlayer by linking their computers to their television sets. Even more significant are the overall numbers associated with iPlayer's use. The original iPlayer was launched in December of last year; since then it has recorded over 100m requests for programmes, with 21.8m requests in May alone – an average of 700,000 per day. According to Rose, that adds up to 10 per cent of all the BBC's domestic users.

The good news for the nine out of 10 BBC users who have yet to use the iPlayer is that it has just been updated. The iPlayer 2.0 fully integrates radio and television in a single interface, and allows smoother and easier navigation between TV and radio. Radio streaming has been radically improved, as has video playback, providing bigger playback windows when you are in full-screen mode.

The new version also points users to the most popular shows. "It has a system that automatically remembers the last 10 programmes you watched," says Rose. So, if you turned off the last episode of Doctor Who halfway through, the iPlayer will remember your viewing history, and when you return to the site you'll be able to pick up right where you left off.

Rose has also designed the latest version of the iPlayer to recognise what he calls the "episodic" habits of most television and radio users. The iPlayer homepage is able to prompt the viewer to watch or listen to new shows in familiar series that they have watched in the past. "It is the beginning of a set of fantastic personalisation pieces that we'll be putting in over the next few months," says Rose, though he warns that the process is still in its early stages. In the longer term, as iPlayer becomes more established, scheduling will change, Rose says. Hundreds of virtual channels will emerge that will allow us to join demographic groups conforming to our viewing habits. Instead of BBC 1 or BBC 2, the iPlayer will pave the way for a channel that might be called BBC Me that will represent a much more customised schedule of BBC programme, matching an individual's demographic, tastes and viewing habits. The more the iPlayer knows us, Rose believes, the more satisfying our viewing experience will be.

The Canadian science fiction author William Gibson once wrote that "the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed". The beauty of the iPlayer is that it distributes the future evenly for all BBC users, irrespective of their technological sophistication.