The BBC has finally unveiled its iPlayer, a kind of Sky for internet TV that's been in development for nearly four years. Once you've installed it you'll be able to download any BBC TV or radio programmes broadcast in the last 7 days, and you've got 30 days before the downloads die (unless you start watching a programme, in which case the download expires after seven days).
For now your downloads are limited to one machine, but the BBC's considering additional features such as the ability to transfer programmes to a PDA or mobile phone and "series stacking", which would enable you to download entire series without worrying about the 7-day download window.
So what do you get? Everything, it seems. According to BBC director of future media and technology Ashley Highfield, "Your favourite programmes from all the BBC's network TV channels will be available to download over the internet and watch on your PC without advertising for up to a week after transmission."
So far 15,000 people have tested the player, and the open beta is available to sign up for at the BBC's iPlayer site
The BBC has big plans for the iPlayer. The corporation wants to integrate it with YouTube , so you might watch an extract online and then use the iPlayer link to download the whole programme, and it's in talks with potential distribution partners including MySpace , Bebo , AOL , Yahoo , MSN and even newspaper sites.
The player will also be available to Virgin Media cable customers, with other platforms to follow. From day one the iPlayer will also include tools to assist people with limited vision, and it will also support sign language, and support for subtitles and audio descriptions will follow shortly afterwards.
It's all very exciting. Oh, unless you're on a Mac. Or a Vista box. Or a Windows 2000 PC. Or Linux. Like every other broadcaster's TV-on-demand service, the BBC's media player is based on Windows Media technology and protected with Digital Rights Management (DRM). That means downloads are protected against piracy, but it also limits the machines on which the downloads will work. For now, the BBC's player is a beta for Windows XP and Windows XP only, although support for Windows Vista and OS X is promised by the time the iPlayer officially launches in the autumn. There are no concrete plans for a Linux version, although that may change if there's enough demand for it.
The best thing? It's free
So is it worth getting excited about? We think it is. TV's been moving onto broadband for some time now, but what makes the BBC's player unique is that it's free - you've already paid for the content through the licence fee. The promise of Mac support is good news too, because with the exception of iTunes UK's paltry selection of short films and video podcasts, we were starting to think that broadband TV was a Windows-only zone. Who knows - it might even spell the end of frantic Bittorrent searches when you've forgotten to set the video. Gary Marshall