Is BBC iPlayer a Typical App For Our Hyperconnected Future?

Over the last few weeks, we have started to see cable companies offering broadband connections with speeds ranging from 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps. Several fiber-based broadband network providers are already marching to even higher speeds. (I like to call it ultraband.) At the same time, we are hearing about faster 3G, 3.5G and 4G wireless networks that would also keep us constantly connected. This hyperconnected network means we will need a special class of applications that can utilize the capacity. One such application is the BBC iPlayer.

I think that at the moment, just for streaming, iPlayer uses about 60Gbps of bandwidth (that’s about 7.5GB downloaded every second) in an evening peak. I think about 15Gbps for downloads, and about 1.5Gbps for iPhone. So overall on a particular peak day we may hit 100Gbps (about 12.5 gigabytes per second) although typically it’ll be somewhat less than that. That turns out to be up to 7PB of data transfer a month. (via CNET UK)

This is some progress for the service. Back in November 2008, I met with one of the senior executives at the BBC who told me that “during the Olympics, the iPlayer accounted for nearly 20 percent of the total broadband traffic in the UK, and at present has garnered about 10 percent of the total UK broadband audience, (and) any given day about 300,000 people use the service to get their old TV fix.”

Why do I say that the BBC iPlayer will be a typical application for this hyperconnected world? Because it focuses on “content consumption,” an increasingly important activity in the future. Folks, indulge for me a minute.

The Internet’s roots are in a narrowband world and, as a result, most of the applications that have been developed over the last decade or so have been “publish”-oriented. The tools of the Internet thus far have also been publish-oriented. We have seen very little innovation in the user experience when it comes to consuming content. Instead, all energy has been focused on the browser, which has become the Swiss Army knife of the Internet.

The constant state of hyperconnectivity that comes in the wake of ultraband means that we will have to build applications that make consumption of content a superior experience. In such an environment, I would say the browser itself mutates and becomes “embedded” into these applications.

With many technology upgrades (such as location-awareness) looming , the browser’s core can become the underpinning of these applications. With iTunes, Apple did a good job of building an application that focuses on content discovery and consumption. Other app developers, such as Songbird, have been trying to focus on developing better content consumption.

But the BBC’s iPlayer is an extreme example of an ultra-broadband application.

We’ve got about 60 encoding servers. And they’re typically dual Quad Core Intel Xeon machines, and they run on a NAS backend architecture because the media that comes in is encoded at 50 or 100Mbps, and these files are many gigabytes in size. We make 400 hours or more a week…We create about 14 different formats, ranging from about 160Kbps for some mobile, over-the-air streaming, through to 1,500Kbps for our highest iPlayer SD quality stream, in H.264 played out as flash. We also create 3Mbps [for standard definition] on Virgin Media, and now for our HD content we create 3.2Mbps HD. (Anthony Rose, Controller, Vision and Online Media Group aka the iPlayer boss in an interview with CNET UK.)

The iPlayer sifts through a lot of data and presents it in an easy-to-snack manner to consumers. I think that is the key feature of tomorrow’s apps. I would love to hear your thoughts on key qualities of an application optimized for the coming hyperconnected future.

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