BBC iPlayer jumps on social networking bandwagon

The BBC has launched the latest version of its popular iPlayer TV service, and says that the version is based on a completely new technical platform.

The latest version of the licence-fee funded TV catch-up portal, which features a new design and a range of social networking features, is currently rolling out to users after a three-month beta trial which received near unanimous negative feedback from testers if comments on the BBC's own site are to be believed.

Many early adopters have reported problems with freezing Flash content, a counter-intuitive interface and annoying pop-ups. Most have implored the venerable broadcaster to leave the old site up and running for those who have no desire to share their viewing and listening habits with their 'friends'.

In fact, it seems that the only people who are really excited about the new launch are those who have been working on the project.

James Hewines explains the thinking behind the revamp in a blog post. "The impetus for change has come from two directions: firstly, we have a long-term plan to constantly evolve the site for the benefit of our audiences. A main theme here is personalisation - simply put, a way to get the programmes you love with less clicking (and thinking!). Secondly, we wanted to connect BBC iPlayer up with the users' online interactions with friends - to bring a social dimension to watching and listening."

With many unhappy beta users pointing out the old adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" the BBC is currently fighting a losing battle against the tide of public opinion, with Hewines clearly desperate to defend what many see as unnecessary changes.

"Given that we'd be making some major changes to a popular product, we were very conscious of the need to be careful. While some users are generally receptive to change, especially where it brings obvious benefits, others may be more cautious. The key design challenge was to add in these richer, more interactive capabilities without detracting from the overall simplicity of the experience.

"It's been possible to reconcile these competing goals by making some basic design decisions that keep things simple - most notably separating TV from radio, and reducing the number of modules on the BBC iPlayer homepage."

The BBC's web tech Simon Frost said in a blog post that his team had its work cut out making the new version, with all of the new social and interactive features, better and faster than before.

"Personalised websites require much more processing power and data storage," he said. "The [old] site uses one back-end service that we pull data from to build the pages. The new site uses many more, and we both post and pull data from them.

"This means that every returning user gets a different homepage. There's already a small amount of difference between each homepage on our current site [your recently played] but the new site is driven much more by your favourites, recommendations and friends; they're key parts of the experience and they have to be fast."

Frost explains that the new release is more than just a redesign, with the new iPlayer based on a completely different architecture. "The BBC is standardising on PHP as its web tier development tool. Our current site is developed using Perl and Server Side Includes, and it's something that's well understood, but our new web tier framework (based on Zend) means that teams can share components and modules. In fact, the team responsible for the social networking functionality develop modules that anyone within the BBC can integrate into their site easily."

The new site has been optimised to meet growing demand as around 1.3 million users view 8 million pages every day.

We can remember a time when gathering around the idiot box on a Saturday evening with your family to watch The Six Million Dollar Man and the Generation Game was about as close to Social Networking as anyone ever got.

Now you'll be able to Ping your granny to tell her not to miss the latest episode of America's Next Top Loser or Celebrity Come Dining On Ice from the comfort of your laptop, even of she is sitting next to you on the sofa prodding away at her iPad.