BBC plots global iPlayer for iPad, iPhone, Apple TV?

By Jonny Evans

The BBC has confirmed plans to bring its popular iPlayer TV service globally to Apple's [AAPL] iPhone and Apple TV in a move sure to please international audiences and one which potentially suggests future support for apps on the set-top box.

iplayer_torchwood.jpg

[ABOVE: iPlayer on an iPad -- a nice way to keep up with Torchwood.]

[This story is from Computerworld's Apple Holic blog. Follow on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

More places, more devices

The BBC has confirmed it will make iPlayer services available outside the UK (though only to 11 European countries) exclusively via the iPad starting from today.

iPlayer is the BBC's service for on-demand TV show delivery. In the UK we enjoy a rich archive of content, including radio shows, recently-screened shows and older material. On an iPlayer it's the best way to watch Torchwood when and where you want it, for example.

The hotly-awaited US iPlayer launch will take place but a schedule hasn't yet been revealed -- I'm wondering if this is something to look forward to at or around Apple's next big iPhone/iPad/iCloud/Apple TV event?

Until today, the BBC has been testing the iPlayer app exclusively on UK iPads. Now it intends widening its offering to more territories and, in future, more iOS devices on a global basis.

[ABOVE: A BBC video shows how it works.]

Apple TV plans?

"This is a pilot – we want to learn more about on-demand behavior ... We think the next phase will be on iPhones and Apple TV," the BBC's president of worldwide networks Jana Bennett told the Financial Times.

The international version of iPlayer won't offer the same breadth of content -- that's because of copyright and licensing problems. Users will get access to a rich archive of shows, including recently-screened shows, for a fee of approximately $10 per month.

Customers can download shows for offline viewing within iPlayer. In order to achieve this the BBC had to override a system-level iPad setting, which it managed in partnership with Apple.

"The way the device works, though, is it hibernates and stops you from doing that: you wake up the next morning and only half a show has downloaded. We have managed to override that functionality, and Apple are comfortable with us doing that," said Mark Smith, director of the global iPlayer project.

The interesting thing to note here is that iPlayer on iPad is an app, and runs like any other app. So, how might the BBC/Apple team bring iPlayer to the Apple TV, a device which doesn't currently run apps?

Switched-on speculation

Here's three scenarios:

  • Apple has reached a deal with the BBC under which the iPlayer app will be offered pre-loaded on Apple TV devices, as Netflix movie rentals currently are, pending a Hulu acquisition. This feature will be offered to the existing 1.5 million Apple TV owners as a software update.
  • A second possibility: The BBC has adopted AirPlay for use in iPlayer, meaning iPad owners will be able to beam iPlayer shows to their television sets via an Apple TV using their iPad.
  • A third scenario: Apple is preparing to flick the switch to begin making further use of the A4 processor inside existing models of Apple TV, enabling selected apps to be run on the device. Though this poses some remote control issues, which perhaps have also been surmounted.

There are perhaps other choices -- let me know in comments. Be warned that the BBC has also said it intends focusing on the iPad "for the next year".

Summing up: if the BBC is correct that it intends launching iPlayer on Apple TV devices, and is correct in its claims of a close partnership with the Californian company, then something interesting should happen, at the very least (as is already happening) an iPlayer app for iPads in the US and across the globe.

Screen_shot_2011-07-28_at_10_57_34.jpg

[ABOVE: Unfortunately there's little known about Apple TV sales figures. They've sold a couple of million or so of the most recent model.]

Testing the waters

Nick Thomas, Principal Analyst for TV & Digital Media at Informa Telecoms & Media this morning explained: "But with a US rollout in the pipeline, this is a great opportunity for BBC Worldwide to find out how to build a successful premium service for non-UK audiences."

He added: "Tablet devices such as the iPad are generally seen as ideal devices for consuming high quality video but no major video aggregator has yet built a premium service targeted solely at iPad users. The industry needs to find a way of making such services work: Tablet manufacturers need strong video services to showcase the capabilities of their devices, while content providers need to find new app-based revenue streams.

"This feels like a soft launch of the global iPlayer, with the bigger long-term opportunities for BBC Worldwide lying in the US market. It remains to be seen what appetite there is for a service based largely around on-demand archive content."

I'm hoping for apps. What's your desire? Do you buy those other oft-repeated claims that Apple also plans to launch an honest-to-goodness Apple television with iTunes/iOS support? Let me know in comments below.

I'd also very much like to invite you to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when I post new reports here first on Computerworld.   

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