Make Browsing Great Again

Spot the Difference

What if I told you that reading online could once again be a pleasant, focused experience? What if you could stop mindlessly clicking on Buzzfeed and Gawker articles with enticing titles? And what if it were really easy?

My friends: I’m not talking about adblocking. Adblocking is Browsing 101 — an essential foundation to internet browsing, but only the start of your journey, not the end.

No, I’m talking about hiding specific webpage elements. Those sidebars full of ‘Trending Articles’ and ‘Most Emailed’? You can remove them. Those random galleries and newspaper signup boxes that interrupt your article? Removeable — just like all those distracting ‘share on Twitter’ and tag lists.

It’s glorious. Continue reading “Make Browsing Great Again”

Invariable Reinforcement

Our office manager Sophie passed me the phone. “It’s someone from Google,” she said. I raised an eyebrow. Perhaps this was an invitation to an event, or another chance to test prototype hardware, or something even more magical.

I unmute the phone. “Hello?”

“Hi, I’m Tim, from Google Digital Development. I’d love to talk about how we can help you promote your apps on the Google Play Store better.”

How disappointing — they were just selling Google search ads. I quickly made my excuses and hung up.

Three months later: “Hi Adrian! My name is Mike, I’m from Google Digital Development -”

Seven months: “Hey Adrian! I’m from Google Digital -”

Twelve months: “I’m Sean, I’m from Google Digi -”

To this day, it keeps happening and I keep getting my hopes up, like a child. Why don’t I learn that ‘Google’ on the phone equals ‘Irish guy cold-calling with ad sales’?

Because I haven’t told you about the times Google contacts us about actual interesting projects. It’s usually by email, but sometimes they do call. Not on a regular schedule, of course — but at random, unpredictable times.

This pattern of frustration mixed with intermittent success is essentially a variable reinforcement schedule. If you’ve read any article about addiction in the last twenty years, you’ll know that a variable reinforcement schedule can be used to make rats compulsively press a lever in the hope of getting another pellet of food; and that the same schedule could explain how addictive behaviour develops in humans.

Some people in the tech community act as if variable reinforcement schedules were occult knowledge, magic words capable of enchanting muggles into loosening their wallets. If only we could learn the secrets of variable reinforcement schedules, we could make them addicted to our new app — all those microtransactions, all those ad views, oh my!

So when people learn that I studied experimental psychology and neuroscience at Cambridge and Oxford — and that I run a company that designs health and fitness games — they are taken aback. They are fascinated. And then… they are disappointed, but only after I tell them that the principles of variable reinforcement schedules and operant conditioning can be learned by a dedicated student in a few hours. Moreover, if experimental psychologists were all capable of making the next Candy Crush, they wouldn’t spend most of their time complaining about the quality of tea in the staff common room.

That doesn’t mean that variable reinforcement schedules are bunk, though.

Variable reinforcement schedules help explain why I spend an hour a day mindlessly checking Gmail, Metafilter, Reddit, Twitter, and Hacker News. Even when I know, with 99% certainty, that nothing interesting will have happened in the 15 minutes since I last checked them, I still type Command-R — because maybe this time I’ll get lucky.

More broadly, it’s why we pay attention to the constant interruptions that plague our screens — there’s no cost to the person sending the interruption, and occasionally, it’s of real interest to us. Continue reading “Invariable Reinforcement”

Guardian comments are destroying civilization

A vast swathe of people now believe that it’s impossible to have intelligent debate online. This is not an unreasonable belief; scroll down on any newspaper website, let alone YouTube, and you’ll discover the shouting matches that inhabit most comments sections. Jessica Valenti recently wondered whether we shouldn’t simply shut down all comments, like Popular Science and, in part, The Verge, have done. Of the Guardian, she said:

My own exhaustion with comments these days has less to do with explicit harassment – which, at places like the Guardian, is swiftly taken care of. (Thank you, moderators!) Rather, it’s the never-ending stream of derision that women, people of color and other marginalized communities endure; the constant insistence that you or what you write is stupid or that your platform is undeserved. Yes, I’m sure straight, white, male writers get this kind of response too – but it’s not nearly as often and not nearly as nasty.

It is strange that she praises the Guardian’s moderators for taking down explicit harassment, but doesn’t consider that they could also remove the ‘never-ending stream of derision’. When The Times or The Telegraph choose which letters to publish in their printed editions, we don’t consider the letters that didn’t fit as having been censored. And just because web pages can be infinitely long doesn’t mean that newspapers suddenly have an obligation to publish everything.

It’s clear the writers and editors at the Guardian care deeply about combatting sexism and racism; that much is evident through the paper. That’s why I regard their refusal to properly moderate their comments to be an astonishing abandonment of principle. It is not a question of free speech or censorship – people may take their hateful speech elsewhere online, and rage at authors to their heart’s content. It just doesn’t have to happen on the article itself. And if it is a question of cost, then remove the comments entirely.

Unmoderated comments sections like the Guardian’s may start out well, but they inevitably succumb to entropy, giving prominence to those who have effectively unlimited time to shout and argue. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has considered trying to reason with ignorant commenters, only to conclude that they have far more time than me, and far less inclination to listen. The transient nature of articles and comments doesn’t help; why bother arguing that sexism is real for the tenth time on the tenth article?

But the real reason why I detest what the Guardian is doing is because their comments sections are, bit by bit, contributing to defeatism and pessimism. The unrepentent toxicity held within them makes it seem as if there’s no point trying to improve the world or change people’s minds. How many times we do hear “I’ve lost my faith in humanity after reading the comments”? In reality, the comments that are see are come from a tiny, unrepresentative sample of the population – but because they are supposedly open to all and they represent some of the little free conversation we see amongst strangers, we conclude that they are representative.

Well, they are not. And the Guardian’s comments are not representative of what could be possible in a well-moderated community. I’ve often praised Metafilter for it’s excellent moderation, and I was reminded of that by a thread in which someone complained their ‘completely harmless’ comments had been deleted for no reason. A moderator explained:

For context, this is about a couple of comments deleted from the thread about how pop songs are all written by the same guy (link goes to my note in the thread). The comments were about Taylor Swift’s short-shorts and her legs. My prediction was, this would cause a pointless derailing fight in the thread, so I deleted them. These were the comments:

“These kids today probably don’t have time to write. The energy they put into these elaborate stage shows. Plus TayTay walking around New York in her short shorts avoiding the paparazzi…”


“I got a kick out of one pic of Taylor and her legs sitting on the floor of a fabulous all white garret jotting down tablature.”

You may look at those comments and think, but there’s no outright harassment, how could they be moderated? Well, as a few people pointed out, they are sexist and gross. People are free to be sexist and gross in their own homes or with their friends – but not on Metafilter. When you read Metafilter, you do not conclude that the world is composed of sweetness and light; people often have strong disagreements there (but not violent disagreements). You would conclude, however, that it is possible for people to change and learn and be reasonable; that you can have faith in humanity.

And if you criticise Metafilter for not being representative either, because it has full-time moderators, then you would be criticising the entire project of civilisation; the idea that we can organise ourselves and improve our culture in a way that makes the world better, not worse.

The Long Decline of Reading

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

– Steve Jobs on eBook readers and the Amazon Kindle

Steve Jobs frequently makes disparaging remarks about markets that Apple later enters (MP3 players, mobile phones, games, etc), so there’s little reason to believe that we won’t all have ‘iBooks’ in three years time. Still, the numbers don’t lie – 40% of people in the US (and 34% in the UK) do not read books any more. They may surf the web, or the read the occasional newspaper, but they do not read more than one book (fiction or non-fiction) in a year.

The closer you look at the statistics, the more depressing it gets. In the US, only 47% of adults read a work of literature – and I don’t mean Shakespeare, I mean any novel, short story, play or poem – in 2006. If that doesn’t sound too bad, consider that it’s declined by 7% in only ten years. It doesn’t matter whether you look at men or women, kids, teenagers, young adults or the middle-aged; everyone is reading less literature, and fewer books.*

When I share this ray of sunshine, I encounter three different reactions, the first being acceptance: “Oh well, that’s too bad! What’s for dinner?” But it’s not just bad, it’s awful. Reading skills for all levels of educational attainment are declining, up to and including people with Masters and PhDs. Reading is strongly correlated with all sorts of good things, such as voting, volunteering, civic responsibility, and even exercise. Furthermore, reading skill at a young age is a very good predictor of future educational success and earnings. Correlation is not causation, but it’s a fact that employers are demanding people with better reading and writing skills.

* I suppose there is one piece of good news, in that those aged over 75 are reading slightly more than they used to…

The second is denial: “Are you really sure these statistics are accurate? And even if they are, most people never read books in the first place.” The statistics are as accurate as any that can be found. Most of the numbers quoted here are from the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts report To Read or Not To Read, which conducted its own surveys and collated others from the US government and universities; and all with large sample sizes. I’ve quoted from sections of the report here, but the whole thing is well worth reading.

In case the non-Americans think that none of this applies to them, and that they can stop reading now, they wouldn’t be alone in their countries. Where America goes culturally and technologically, the rest of the world tends to follow. I haven’t been able to find as good statistics for the UK (and I have looked), although those at the Literacy Trust are not cause for celebration.

I am not talking about basic literacy here, which has been steadily rising for the last few centuries and effectively reaching 100% in most developed countries and many others besides. Basic literacy does not show any signs of slipping, but we are in dire straits if that’s the best we can do. It is true that book reading has never been anywhere close to universal, but it is also true that book reading, and the reading of literature, is gradually declining across all age ranges.

Finally, the third is defensive: “So what? People are reading more than ever on the web!” I am not aware of any research showing how much people – young people in particular – read on the web; it’s notoriously hard to measure, since the nature of the technology changes very quickly. In any case, I suspect that the total volume of words that people read on the web is really quite high, perhaps higher than what they would have otherwise read in books.

If we were only worried about the number of words people read, then we could take heart from a couple of game designers I met at a reading event. One said that his mobile phone game had 30,000 words in it. The other informed the audience that his quiz game not only required reading because the questions were written out – rather than spoken – but it actually had a traditional three-act structure (just like real literature) because it had a beginning, middle, and end. I could go on, but I think you get the idea: reading is not only about quantity, it is about quality and complexity. Reading 100 tabloid articles is not the same as reading ten essays or a single book.

The situation is undeniably bad. What’s going to happen next? Continue reading “The Long Decline of Reading”

My Daily Read

“You’re better off reading a bunch of blogs than most columnists.” – me, earlier today.

Every time I open the Guardian, or the Times, or any other newspaper, I am disappointed by the poor quality of the columns and editorial. For the most part, they’re barely-informed polemics that are constrained by word limits and motivated by shock-value. If the authors ever were good writers (and to be fair, many of them were), they’ve had the life sucked out of them by having to churn out their column, week in and week out, for years. With a commercial need to cater to a mass audience, authors cannot indulge their own interests and instead lazily rehash their own mundane experiences (‘I waited a whole 30 minutes for a bus yesterday!’).

I could go on, but Stephen Fry describes the problem much better (and funnier) than I could in his podcast on commentary and opinion in journalism. My point is that I would rather read nothing at all than most newspaper columns.

So where do I go for my daily dose of commentary and opinion? Weblogs. Let’s skip past the obvious fact that most weblogs are of little interest to more than a tiny, personal audience and get to the main point – which weblogs are good?

Now, if you’re like me and have been using RSS readers to subscribe to weblogs for years, you’ve may have heard of these. But most people don’t even know what RSS means, so I think it is actually quite useful to list these:

  • Marginal Revolution: There are many well-written economics blogs out there, but Marginal Revolution, written by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, combine an easy readability with a sharp analytical bent. The blog is supremely up-to-date, and even better, links to the outstanding posts from other ‘econblogs’. Like the best blogs, it occasionally strays from its main topic to cover literature, history and entertainment; for example, see a post on how to survive if suddenly transported back to 1000 AD. It beats any other economics commentary I’ve read; the only problem is that it’s US-centric.
  • 3quarksdaily: Despite its name and intention to be a ‘one-stop intellectual surfing experience’, 3quarksdaily remains on my list of daily reads due to its commentary and links on non-Western politics. The depth of thought there is a refreshing change from the frequently breathless and hasty commentary found on other blogs, and I find it to be a excellent antidote to typically Western views. I do have to admit that I skip at least half of the posts (let’s face it, art is just not my top interest), but those I do read are worth it.
  • Arts and Letters Daily: It doesn’t get much better than A&L Daily – these guys post three links every single day to the very best articles, book reviews and opinion from around the world, whether it’s from a newspaper, magazine, journal, weblog or video. They might not be the most timely of blogs, and they don’t write anything themselves, but if you ever find yourself bored and in need of intellectual stimulation, A&L Daily is perfect.
  • Fafblog: Now, Fafblog is a special case. Firstly, he (it?) barely updates weekly, let alone daily. Secondly, he was recently recruited for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section, which somewhat contradicts my earlier point. In any case, Fafblog is without doubt the funniest political commentator on the web. You can forget The Onion – that’s for students. This is the real deal. Just check out the classic post, In case of Emergency.
  • FiveThirtyEight: Now that the US election is over, there is admittedly less point in reading FiveThirtyEight. However, during the months preceding it, this weblog provided consistently clear, informed and analytical commentary on the election race. Unusually, the author, Nate Silver, also performed some of the best polling analysis in the world, and was a frequent guest on various news networks. It was basically pointless reading any other polling predictions whatsoever – FiveThirtyEight was widely acknowledged as being the best, and in any case was happy to link to other interesting blogs.
  • The Iceland Weather Report: Are supermarkets in Iceland really running out of food? What’s going on with the riots? Is everyone really depressed over there? You could read an article written by someone who’s visited the country for two days and knows nothing about the place, or you could read a clear-headed weblog from someone who lives there, and even better, can write extremely well. Your choice.
  • Cosmic Variance: New Scientist? Don’t make me laugh. Scientific American? I can barely stay awake. Cosmic Variance is really the best place I’ve found for news and commentary about physics, space and other hard sciences; it’s engagingly-written, and is great for scientists and ‘laypeople’ alike.

I have about 70 other feeds I subscribe to, but most of them are just pure news. I also read most of the New York Times every day, which occasionally has decent columns, and the New Yorker, The Atlantic, and the Economist.

I actually tried, unsuccessfully, to unsubscribe from the Economist a few weeks ago, after I became yet again enraged by its smarmy, supercilious tone, and seeming indifference to being completely and utterly wrong every single week – but then I discovered the unsubscription process was a little more circuitous than I first thought. I also grudgingly admitted that it had some interesting reporting from around the world, but I’m not terribly happy about it and am considering swapping it with the London Review of Books.

In case you think I’m freeloading, I probably pay more for my reading than 95% of the UK population, given that I subscribe to the Economist, New Yorker and Atlantic. I would pay for the New York Times as well, but it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense given the distance (however, when an eBook version arrives, I’ll be there).

It is also worth noting that all of the blogs I’ve mentioned do not charge their readers anything. Yes, believe it or not, there are people out there who are prepared to make gifts of their writing.

Meeting Room Yield Management

Six to Start is based in a large building containing dozens of managed and serviced offices. On the way to the shared kitchen at work, I noticed two empty meeting rooms. It occurred to me that, just like an empty seat on a plane, an empty meeting room is lost cash. Sure, there is a small cost on keeping the room clean and well-maintained, but the standard fees for meeting room use provide an enormous profit margin. Given that most of the cost for the room – building it and buying furniture – has already been paid, surely it would be wise to keep it in use as much as possible, even at a lower per-hour fee, in order to maximise profit?

I suspect that most building managers don’t bother doing this for one main reason – it would take too much work. To prevent losing money either through oversupply (by means of unused meeting rooms that could’ve been offices) or undersupply (by means of lost meeting room fees when all the rooms are full) there is usually a certain ratio of meeting rooms to offices.

Obviously the calcuation isn’t perfect. Most rooms will be empty most of the time, and occasionally all the rooms will be full. In order to still try and make money, managers will set the fees at a rate that will – over time – cover costs, even when the room is empty.

This is incredibly inefficient – as inefficient as an airline setting a single price for tickets within a class, and then letting the plane fly with any seats empty. In 1985, American Airlines began a yield management program in which otherwise empty seats were sold cheaply. Nowadays, we all know that there are certain days where tickets cost much more, and that we can also snap up bargains if we wait until the very last minute.

So, why not perform yield management on meeting rooms? Set up a simple tracking system for usage of all meeting rooms in a building and dynamically set prices based on both historic and live demand. Bump up the prices for rooms at peak times (late morning, early afternoon) and for those reserving in advance for important meetings, and reduce them for slower times (evening, weekends). Allow non-time sensitive customers to check prices so that they can snap up a bargain if the room is empty for an impromptu brainstorm.

The main reason I’m interested in this is not because Six to Start needs to use meeting rooms a lot, or that I see this as a brilliant business opportunity (then again, who knows…); it’s because my thoughts have lately often turned to organising events like Barcamps and miniconferences. These sorts of events are relatively easy to set up, but you do still need to find a reasonably large amount of space, which can be tricky to find. I remember standing on the roof garden during GameCamp (kindly hosted by Sony 3Rooms by Brick Lane) and looking out at the large office buildings nearby, thinking of the dozens if not hundreds of meeting rooms that were going empty right at the moment. Rooms that could be used – and paid for – by any number of interest groups, clubs, conferences and reading groups. If buildings plugged their data into a central website (say, which aggregated and displayed all meeting room availability and prices in a city, you could really make the system much more efficient. Perhaps in time you would even have people buying meeting room futures, or suchlike.

There must be any number of physical resources like airplane seats in which:

  • There is a fixed amount of resources available for sale.
  • The resources sold are perishable. This means that there is a time limit to selling the resources, after which they cease to be of value.
  • Different customers are willing to pay a different price for using the same amount of resources.

where yield management isn’t being used because the prices don’t justify it yet (after all, flights are more expensive). But as the price of the software comes down and administering the use of the resources becomes more streamlined, I think we’ll be seeing yield management being applied to all sorts of weird things like cars, bicycles, rarely-used powertools, pianos, gardens and so on. What a glorious future we have ahead of us!

Berlin Calling

Three people – a doctor, the CTO of an up-and-coming web company, and the CEO of an up-and-coming 3D game engine company – have independently told me the same thing in the last month. It’s time to move to Berlin.

In any discussion of where I work and what I do, the subject of London’s frustratingly high house prices and cost of living comes up. Relocating to elsewhere in the UK, such as Guildford or Bath, is usually dismissed since they are ‘completely boring’ and the prices aren’t really that much lower there anyway. There’s some ambivalent comparison of various European cities, and then it’s pointed out to me that in Berlin, not only could I afford a mansion, a swimming pool and a shooting range for the amount I currently spend on rent, but I could also have access to all sorts of ‘culture’. Plus, unlike Paris and most of Europe, Berlin quite likes Americans, which is always helpful.

I have to admit that I’m not about to move to Berlin, or anywhere else, any time soon; I like London, even with its high prices, just as it is right now. But I occasionally daydream about leading a band of young creatives and entrepreneurs to somewhere cheaper, proclaiming, “Screw you,
London – we’ve had enough, and now we’re going.”

More seriously, having travelled all over Europe in the last few months, I’ve been struck by how easy and cheap it is to fly and Eurostar everywhere, and also by the surprising abundance of interesting people I meet in each city. I know that sounds terrible, but I think that ‘web’ and ‘digital’ people like myself in the UK are fixated on the US as the only place where interesting people are and where interesting things happen; and more precisely, New York and San Francisco. I always intended to move to the US as soon as I could after university. Now, I’m not really that attracted. The magic has gone.

So, it has to be said, there are interesting people in Europe. Services and connectivity are at least as good, if not better, than the UK, and of course, the cost of living is far lower. Why not move to Berlin? Because it’s hard to be the first person to do it. You come up against all sorts of  unexpected hurdles and you don’t have anyone to give you advice. When you finally get there, you’re on your own, with few other British or American startups.

Now, the CTO I mentioned earlier did come up with the interesting idea of spending short stints in Berlin, anywhere from one month to six months. This would require some very understanding employees, of course, but while young people aren’t quite that mobile yet, I do think they’re getting there. I suggested another tack – a group of startups and small companies could join forces and agree to rent out a set of offices and apartments, and simply take turns staying there. Like an incubator (or a timeshare).

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Berlin or elsewhere. The impulse behind this daydream, which is evidently shared among many, many people, is that cities like London are getting just too expensive to work in. Much of the work we do can be done anywhere; however, we like living in cities, not in the middle of nowhere. A possible solution presents itself in European cities such as Berlin, that have thriving cultural and tech scenes, that are modern and easily accessible and friendly to foreigners. By moving, you’re not just outsourcing yourself to another country, you’re getting to see the world.

London, watch out…

After Our Time

After listening to an edition of In Our Time about the Jacobite Rebellion, I found myself writing yet another post on this weblog inspired by that wonderful Radio 4 programme. As I was finishing it, I thought that with all the posts I was making relating to In Our Time, I should really make a new category for it. Or better yet, a new weblog…

A couple of weeks later, and I’ve set up a weblog – plus a forum and wiki – dedicated to In Our Time. Following much deliberation, I decided to name it After Our Time (thanks Naomi!) and I’ve already stocked it up with a few posts. I won’t spend too much time describing it here, since you can find that information on After Our Time’s first welcome post, but I have high hopes for it. In Our Time is a very unique programme with, I hope, very interesting listeners. I’m looking forward to meeting them on the website, even if – like all online communities – it does take time to grow. If you don’t want to keep checking After Our Time or subscribe to its RSS feed, you can always glance over to the sidebar on this site, where you’ll find links to the latest After Our Time posts.

The main impact on will be that I write a little less here; or more precisely, all of the posts that I would have written about In Our Time will go on the other weblog. So there’s really no loss, providing that you liked those posts in the first place – and if you didn’t, it’s actually a gain!

And if you wanted to read my post about the Jacobite Rebellion, and Scottish Bioweapons, here it is…

The Strength of Weak Ties

Anyone who’s read about social networks and the ‘tipping point’ will know how important the connections between people are. It’s not enough to look at just the number and the individuals in the connections though – you have to look at their strength. While reading an article (I forget which) about social networks, I spotted a reference to Mark Granovetter’s original 1973 paper on The Strength of Weak Ties (PDF).

This paper made an astonishing and counterintuitive claim – that weak ties between individuals are often more important than strong ties. To be clear, a strong tie might exist between family members or good friends, and a weak tie would exist between an old school friends who see each other once a year at Christmas. Granovetter’s paper is a little hard going for the first dozen or so pages, since it’s laden with a lot of theory and some specialised language, but it really gets going after that, when he starts quoting data:

In a random sample of recent professional, technical, and managerial job changers living in a Boston suburb, I asked those who found a new job through contacts how often they saw the contact around the time that he passed on job information to them…

Of those finding a job through contacts, 16.7% reported that they saw their contact often at the time, 55.6% said occasionally, and 27.8% rarely…

In many cases, the contact was someone only marginally included in the current network of contacts, such as an old college friend or a former workmate or employer, with whom sporadic contact had been maintained. Usually such ties had not even been very strong when first forged… It is remarkable that people receive crucial information from individuals whose very existence they have forgotten.

Remarkable indeed. Most people would approach friends for job leads first, not acquaintances, thinking that they would be more fruitful, but this is simply not the case (at least in general).

Towards the end of the papers is a wonderful section called ‘Weak Ties and Community Organization’. I recommend that you read it directly, since it’s written so well, but I’ll summarise below. Granovetter argues that when a community is completely partitioned into cliques, where strong ties vastly outnumber weak ties, it would be very difficult for that community to organise. Yes, you could provide news to everyone in the community, but would anyone do anything about it?:

Studies of diffusion and mass communication have shown that people rarely act on mass-media information unless it is also transmitted through personal ties… Enthusiasm for an organization in one clique, then, would not spread to others but would have to develop independently in each one to insure success.

This has powerful implications for communities shaped into cliques, such as the Italian community of Boston’s West End in the 50s and 60s, which was “unable to even form an organization to fight against the ‘urban renewal’ which ultimately destroyed it.” Weak ties are needed to allow information to spread between networks. Common sources of weak ties are clubs, work settings and formal organisations; so when you attend a conference every year, and simply spend a few minutes with a few dozen people there, you are refreshing those ties that allow information, gossip and job offers to spread.

Social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn allow you to formalise and track weak ties; that’s why they’re so powerful. Anyone who wants to emulate or learn from those sites would do well to look back to the original research conducted in this area.

BBC iPlayer: well over a day late and a dollar short

As has been widely noted, the BBC’s iPlayer application, which lets people watch the last seven days of TV over the internet, didn’t actually launch on 27th July. It’s still currently in beta, and if you apply to test it, it’ll take a couple of days to receive your login details. This is not particularly surprising, given the long delays the project has suffered over the past few years.

In any event, I got into the beta and launched Windows XP on my iMac (using VMWare). I’d heard that the process of getting iPlayer to run was a little complicated, so I wanted to see for myself. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Register at
  2. Receive login details via email a couple of days later
  3. Visit the BBC iPlayer page, enter the custom username and password to get into the secure site
  4. Get to the point of finding a programme I want to watch (not easy – why not show a list or grid of programmes divided by channel and ordered by time?), click on download, and get told that I need to be running Internet Explorer. Sigh.
  5. Revisit programme page using Internet Explorer (I chose ‘The Museum’)
  6. Install Windows Media Player 11
  7. Download BBC iPlayer application and install it
  8. Refresh programme page again
  9. Give IE permission to install the ‘Kontiki ActiveX addon’ (I happen to know what this is – a P2P application – but what happens if other users are suspicious?)
  10. Log in using my BBC online account (it wasn’t immediately clear whether I had to make a new iPlayer-specific account – thankfully not)
  11. Finally, click on download in IE
  12. One hour later, view the programme from the iPlayer application. It works, even inside VMWare, and the quality is fine, but noticeably worse than anything you could get via Bittorrent (or Tivo, for that matter)

I appreciate – or at least, hope – that the finished application won’t need custom login details. I also understand that most people will be using Internet Explorer by default, so they won’t have to launch it like I did; although it’s worth noting that almost 20% of people in the UK use Firefox, and another 5-10% will use some other non-IE browser.

Even with these caveats, the process is far too long. Users are expected to download and install an application, and install an ActiveX control. They’re also required to have a BBC online login, which most will not. On top of all of this is an irritatingly large amount of switching between applications and refreshing of pages, and a mediocre programme library.

I am, of course, ignoring the fact that the iPlayer doesn’t work on Macs. I have heard it argued from the BBC that they are not under any obligation to ensure that the iPlayer works for every single system, and that Mac users should blame Apple for not licensing the Windows Media Player 11 DRM. The problem is that the BBC is a public service institution and is expected, where possible, to provide content to the widest number of people. There are other ways of getting content to people using Macs besides Microsoft’s DRM.

To be honest, I doubt that anyone at the BBC even believes in these arguments. All of the BBC techs I’ve talked to about the iPlayer and Ashley Highfield tend to begin swearing profusely. Maybe it’s because most of them use Macs.

Ultimately, the iPlayer is irrelevant. ABC’s website already allows anyone in the US to stream high-definition versions of Lost, Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty, among others. You don’t need to download anything, you don’t need to register or log in, and yes, it works on Macs. Now that’s a service that will entice people away from Bittorrent!

No doubt the BBC would say that they have different rights issues to ABC. There are two responses to this: firstly, if ABC figured out the legals so that they could stream programmes online, surely the BBC can? And secondly, it’s not as if the BBC even appears to care about rights in other arenas. The BBC’s copyright is already enforced completely schizophrenically: there’s nothing stopping someone with Sky Plus from recording all the episodes of Doctor Who at original quality and keeping them for years; or someone with a Sony DVD recorder from burning those same episodes to disc. People have been illegally downloading TV episodes for years – it’s easier, quicker, more flexible and higher-quality than the iPlayer – and you don’t even get caught any more! And if they can’t figure out Bittorrent, there’s always YouTube, Dailymotion and TVLinks. So why restrict computer users to downloading only a fraction of their content, and automatically deleting it after a month?

The BBC’s stance makes me think of the boy with his finger in the dike, proudly holding back the sea – except with the BBC, there’s water gushing through a thousand holes elsewhere. They think they’re doing people a favour by letting them rewatch programmes over the internet, as if this were a huge innovation. They think they stop people from copying their content by building restrictions into their outdated piece of software, the iPlayer. They can’t.