BBC iPlayer back on Wii: a tipping point?

The BBC’s new iPlayer ‘app’ for the Wii is now available for download: and it has the potential to do amazing things to UK viewing habits.
Thus far, if you wanted to watch iPlayer via your Nintendo Wii (and your wireless broadband connection), there was a web-based interface, not dissimilar to iplayer/bigscreen – which was fine, but not without its issues. Like for example, if you wanted to watch full-screen – which, of course, you would – you had to do a manual zoom-in on the playback window, and even then, it wasn’t quite right. Then came the upgrade to the Wii’s web browser… and iPlayer broke, for some reason.
Instead, there’s now a free iPlayer ‘channel’ available for download from the console’s Wii Shop. The interface is much the same: which, to be honest, is a bit disappointing. I can appreciate the desire to maintain consistency across all broadcast platforms, but the Wii could surely do a lot more than others. But it works fine, so no real complaints.
The TV playback? Fantastic. Better image quality than before (I think): not as good as a Sky Digital signal, but certainly good enough. Seems more reliable playback too. And yes, hurrah, proper full-screen viewing.
Of course, the Wii version falls a bit behind the Virgin Media cable version, which already boasts HD-quality. But it’s worth noting how big a success iPlayer has been on cable; Virgin credited its arrival as being ‘a real tipping point in consumer understanding of on-demand’. I wonder if the same can happen with the Wii (and other games consoles) as platforms for delivering online content?

Social Mobility for bloggers

New Opportunities site
A quick nod towards today’s New Opportunities (micro)site, in support of the white paper on Social Mobility. Most of it is fairly straightforward, ‘pages in a hierarchy’ stuff; well done, certainly, but nothing particularly special. There are a few points definitely worthy of note, though.
One is the root address: – one of many domains pointing to the Cabinet Office’s webserver. It’s a very odd choice indeed; and somewhat ironic, given that the earliest government domains were Presumably it’s because of the cross-departmental nature of the initiative itself; that would also explain the use of that lesser-spotted HM Government logo.
Another is the inclusion of Flash-based streaming video, direct from the host site itself – as opposed to the usual embedded-from-YouTube method. It’s quite a timely move, given COI new recruit Ross Ferguson’s reflections on that very subject this morning. Here’s one embedded example…
Streaming your own video can get expensive: at respectable quality, that’s a lot of data eating up your monthly bandwidth allocation. But I suppose the DIY approach means you can customise the appearance, see the usage stats, and (crucially in this case, I suspect) get around corporate IT networks’ blocking of YouTube et al.
Then there’s the ‘social media press release‘, which proclaims: ‘We want to encourage debate online and offline about the issues raised in this document, and have made the following resources available for bloggers and journalists to use within their own coverage of the White Paper.’ In practice that means a bullet-point summary, a dozen streamed videos for easy embedding, plus links to external resources and external coverage. It’s a nice package.
To be honest though, I’m not sure the fluffy ‘ordinary people’ video content is right for this sort of thing. I don’t see why anyone would want to include these case studies in their coverage. Surely you’d have a better chance with some pieces to camera from insiders / experts / Ministers? (Not that those are ideal, necessarily…)
As for ‘social mobility for bloggers’ – well, it’s always amused me how easy it is to get yourself some profile in this business. If you can crank out a half-decent blog, people will find you, and your name will become known. There aren’t that many people talking about the subjects I cover here. There’s no magic recipe: just demonstrate that you know your subject, and it’ll pay off. But that’s enough career advice from me… 🙂

Web 2.0 is just so 2008

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions or predictions; I’ll leave those to other people.
Suffice to say, I’m increasingly of the opinion that web 2.0, as a phase in the web’s development, is over. I’m using almost exactly the same tools now that I was this time last year. It’s ages since any new technology (in and of itself) blew me away. And I’m very close to unsubscribing from TechCrunch, the trade journal of web 2.0. I just can’t think of the last thing I read in it which really excited me.
So here we are. It really feels like we have our winners in most of the ‘web 2.0’ categories: WordPress, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Basecamp, Google in various guises. And it feels like we have all the tools we need, most of them free of charge, to make things happen. Let 2009 be the year where we really start to make use of them.
What excites me?

  • Optimised presentation on mobile devices, specifically the iPod Touch / iPhone (for now)… and as I’ve mentioned before, on games consoles like the Wii. By September last year, there were 3.6m Wiis in UK hands; and it’s been another big Christmas for Wiis. That’s a lot of internet-ready devices in a lot of UK living rooms.
  • High definition video. We’re starting to see HD camcorders coming in at affordable prices, and YouTube is starting to deliver very high quality versions of uploaded clips. The quality is at least as good as TV, and sometimes I’d say better. I particularly like the look of the Canon SX1 (stills) camera – digital SLR functionality in a consumer product, with the ability to shoot HD video to SD card. £400’s a lot of money, but I’m still tempted.
  • RSS. No, seriously. As an industry, we seem to have given up on mass consumer adoption. Instead, attention seems to be heading into how we can use it to create new sites in their own right, like Steph’s digitalgovuk catalogue or my own OnePolitics; or connect sites seamlessly across different CMSes. I’m even planning to build one site whose homepage will be powered primarily by its own RSS feed (too boring to explain). We need it more than ever, and it still isn’t letting us down.
  • JQuery. I’ve always resisted learning Javascript; it felt like too much of a step towards becoming a full-time developer. But JQuery makes it so ridiculously easy, it’s a crime not to use it. So far, most of my work with it has been invisible, behind-the-scenes stuff. But I’m looking for excuses to go JQuery-crazy.
  • WordPress. Or more accurately, me using WordPress. I’m thinking up more and more clever ways to use it, and it’s almost a case of finding projects where I can squeeze in my new ideas – with or without the client knowing. 🙂 More details as things emerge, naturally.
  • Cost-cutting. Having too much money is almost as bad as not having enough. It’s a magnificent opportunity for open source generally, and for people like myself (forgive me) who can whip up impressive solutions with it. The business cases for buying Big Ugly CMSes and hiring Big Ugly Consultancies will need to be very, very good.
  • But most of all… good, substantial material going online. We’ve done enough trials and experiments to see what works and what doesn’t. Specifically, we’ve got enough examples to show that it won’t work unless you really make an effort. So let’s hope the ascent of Obama, and the prospect (however slim) of a UK general election inspire politicians in government and outside to really get stuck in.

We have all the tools we need, and it’s even easier than before. Let’s start delivering.
PS: Coincidentally – and yes, not a little ironically given the above – TechCrunch has today posted its list of ‘products I can’t live without‘. Most notable, to my half-awake eye, is the similarity with last year, and the gradual pruning of the more obscure names in favour of the Old Favourites. (Slightly surprised to see FriendFeed making the 2009 list, by the way.)

MySociety completes crowd-sourced video markup

Congratulations (hardly for the first time, of course) to the MySociety crew: in less than two months, it looks like their community of volunteers has completed the work to timestamp the 42,019 video clips supplied to They Work For You by BBC Parliament, covering the entire 2007-8 parliamentary session. Hero status is rightly accorded to Abi Broom, responsible herself for more than 20% of the effort (!)… but it’s interesting to see a few familiar names in the list of ‘top timestampers’.
Of course, the time is ticking down to the start of the new Parliamentary Session, when the work starts all over again. Tom Steinberg tells me they get ‘only’ 3-400 new clips per day, so keeping up to date shouldn’t be too hard. Unless Abi gets sick, obviously. 🙂
Quite seriously, this is a fantastic achievement. The goodwill of a community of people, coupled with a trivially simple tagging tool, achieved something which – realistically – neither speech recognition technology, nor the IT budgets of Hansard and BBC Parliament (combined?) ever could. And it goes without saying, it’s largely down to the MySociety ‘brand’ of charitable activism: if Parliament had asked people to do this, do you think many would? (Not that there should be much anguish in Millbank about this invasion of ‘their’ territory; I bet Parliamentary people will be the ones most grateful for the service.)
About 13% of the video clips were tagged anonymously; my guess is that, like me, many of those were people who were searching for something on TheyWorkForYou, came across an as-yet untagged video clip, and decided to ‘leave a tip’. For me, the magic of the tool was the fact that it made this bit so easy. But that means 87% were tagged by people who went to the trouble of registering – much more than I would have guessed, although admittedly, 7 people were responsible for over 50% of the tagging.

Live video for Darzi's NHS Review

This afternoon sees the effective conclusion of Lord Darzi’s year-long (ish) review of the National Health Service, under the Our NHS Our Future banner. I did a quick reskin of the associated website back in May, and we’ve gone a few steps further to mark the big finale.
Inspired by comments from Tom Steinberg back in January, regarding the HMRC website on tax deadline day, I decided to rework the homepage to raise all the Review documentation right to the very top. A big friendly header immediately grabs your attention, and says yes, you’re in the right place. There’s a live video feed from the launch conference, embedded directly in the homepage using Flash. We’re hoping to keep the as-live video available ‘on demand’ for a few days, whilst we cut an edited highlights package. Previous homepage content isn’t lost, but gets bumped well down the page.
The live video feed came together remarkably quickly – the idea was first floated on Thursday afternoon, and here I am on Monday, watching it on my desktop. See? It can be done.

Big things at Sky News

The new Sky News website is open for public beta viewing, and there are some significant developments.
The use of actual moving video in the homepage’s ‘top stories’ carousel area is a genuine surprise, and I think it works, although there must be significant implications on the content production and technical sides. Personally, I don’t think I’d have moved the ‘left hand margin’ to be a thick horizontal bar across the top, particularly since it pushes the page’s defining element (at least partially) ‘below the fold’.
There’s a registration-only ‘story tracker’ function, allowing you to subscribe to a (seemingly very limited) selection of major story threads, with updates appearing in a sidebar. And there’s a much-needed rationalisation of their chaotic blogs, although slightly disappointingly, they’ve pulled the blogs into the same un-blog-like presentation as the main site. Instinctively, that feels like the wrong way to do it. I’m seeing more and more people wanting to make their big, ugly CMSes more like blog platforms.
But is it a better experience overall? I’m not convinced. There’s little improvement in look or feel: it’s all (still) a bit blocky, and I’m not fond of the huge Arial headlines.
My view of Sky remains that they should be accepting they can’t come close to matching the BBC, and should instead make a virtue of their smaller, more agile setup. The Sky brand is all about ‘breaking news’, and nobody is better placed to become ‘the site you go to as soon as news breaks’. This is not that site.

Cameron goes direct

The Tories‘ latest engagement initiative, Cameron Direct takes its ‘town hall meeting’ roadshow to a Plymouth primary school tonight. The event will be broadcast live, and then ‘on demand’, in video via the UK-based It also looks like they’ll be liveblogging the event through, guess what, CoverItLive. I’m not entirely sure it’s worth doing both, unless they’re planning on involving the liveblog-watchers in the proceedings somehow..? Proceedings start at 6.30pm, and should be done in time for kick-off in tonight’s football.
Here’s the recording of last week’s event in Truro. Whether you like Cameron or not, you have to admit he’s very good at this sort of thing.

Why Parliament doesn't like YouTube

LibDem MP Jo Swinson raised the subject of parliamentary video clips going on YouTube, during questions to the Leader of the House last week. You can see it below.
Helen Goodman’s response is enlightening: video material isn’t allowed to be hosted on a site where it can be searched or downloaded ‘to ensure that it is not re-edited or reused inappropriately for campaigning or satirical purposes’. In this day and age, it’s ridiculous…
…as is proven, of course, by the very fact that I can post the above video clip courtesy of TheyWorkForYou‘s new ‘mechanical Turk‘-style manual markup initiative, and BBC Parliament’s recordings.
It’s another MySociety project where my overwhelming feeling is disappointment: it’s sad that it has to come to this. And unfortunately, where Amazon can offer cash, MySociety can only offer warm feelings. But they seem to be making startling progress.
By the way… the list of signatories to Jo Swinson’s early day motion is interesting, with quite a bit of Northern Irish interest, and almost nothing from WebCameron’s Tories.

Movie critic Kermode takes video-blogs into mainstream

I’ve always been a big fan of Mark Kermode, movie critic, broadcaster and visiting fellow at the University of Southampton. Prior to podcasting, I would schedule my Fridays to allow me to hear his Five Live segments with Simon Mayo. And yet curiously, I’m not really a movie fan (although I sometimes think I could have been). And besides, I’m now the devoted parent of a toddler. Cinemas are off my agenda for the foreseeable.
Kermode has one thing in his favour: passion. He really cares about movies, and he’s quite prepared to show it. It’s almost as if that passion is what attracts me, more than the subject matter. It’s the same with Clarkson & co on Top Gear. Since last summer’s floods I no longer own a car, and I don’t get especially excited by them. But Top Gear is must-see TV. (Indeed, as my wife puts it, she loves Top Gear apart from the car bits. That kinda sums it up.)
So it’s great to see Kermode being the subject of the BBC’s latest blogging project – and, if I’m not mistaken, their first true ‘video blog’. And yes, guess what, it’s great stuff.
Let’s look at the mechanics of it. The ‘entries’ use the BBC’s embedded video player (which finally works on my system!)… and look terrific in full-screen. They’re limited to 2 minutes, ish… and they’re mostly a fixed camera pointing at his head and shoulders, with the occasional still image or trailer excerpt dropped in for variety. No clever production, no smart-arse video effects, no background muzak. Frankly, nothing you couldn’t do yourself with a dead cheap camera, probably even a half-decent phone, and a YouTube account.
Why does it work? It’s all down to Kermode himself, once again. A warm and engaging personality, a thorough knowledge of his subject, a sense of what makes a good anecdote. He’s clearly comfortable in front of a mic or camera; he goes in knowing what he’s going to say, but doesn’t seem to be reciting a half-memorised script – or worst of all, reading off an autocue. But mostly it’s his passion, genuine passion. His opinion on what constitutes a good film (almost) doesn’t matter.
This is the first example I’ve seen of a ‘mainstream’ videoblog which really works (although as Dan Taylor points out, you can arguably trace it back to BBC2’s Video Nation); and it shows the power of video in personal engagement.
There’s unquestionably a role for this in government and politics, giving MPs, ministers and candidates an opportunity to demonstrate the genuine passion they have for what they (want to) do (in theory). And this is the model they should aim to follow.

Highfield quits BBC

I’m sure other people will have much better insight than I into the departure of Ashley Highfield from his £359,000/year job at the BBC. Of course, he’s moving to a not-unrelated position, heading up Project Kangaroo, the video-on-demand joint-venture between the BBC, ITV and Channel Four. The success of iPlayer version 2 may or may not have been a factor… but isn’t it interesting how version 1 has become a dim and distant memory already been wiped from the history books? (See below.)
The Guardian reckons Erik Huggers has been groomed to be his successor:

“There’s a belief that [Huggers] was brought in specially and was being trained up for the job,” said (an) insider, who added that Huggers was well respected within the corporation. He makes stuff happen and is very hands-on. He is a very accomplished public speaker, has a very broad knowledge and will knock heads together.”
The source also said Huggers may find it difficult to move from a very delivery-focused, practical role to the politics of the corporation’s top digital media job. “Ashley’s job is 85% politics, 15% doing things. It will be interesting to see how [Huggers] does.”

Interesting use of the word ‘interesting’ there, obviously.
I suppose it’s a high-profile vote of confidence in the internet as a medium for distributing TV, although it makes the recent spat between Highfield and the country’s ISPs all the more juicy. And it’s probably a good thing for the BBC to have a new hand at the helm.
Over on the BBC’s Internet blog, Nick Reynolds posts the full email to staff from Mark Thompson. (Thanks Nick.) Again, I note the prominent iPlayer reference. It’s amazing how this has become a great moment in UK media history, despite getting it (frankly) so wrong in its first incarnation.
But hang on. I’m most amused by Thompson’s line about iPlayer receiving ’42 million programme requests in its first three months’. This figure seems to come from a press release last week, which proclaimed 42 million ‘in the first three months since its Christmas Day 2007 marketing launch‘. Crucially then, it seems we’re wiping the Microsoft-only, Kontiki-based, wait-forever-to-download product from the history books. Better remove all trace from the archives, guys.
And for the record, has anyone managed successfully to watch programming on a Wii? I’m finding it stops every 20-30 seconds to buffer, making it practically unwatchable.