Channel 4 recently launched a video-on-demand service; you can view shows over the Internet any time you want to. It's a nice idea, and it could have been great.
Recently, I was watching 'Property Ladder', a great show in which really stupid people renovate houses to make money. After the programme ended, there was a note that the week's episode was freely available on 4oD, the video on demand service. As I often miss the show in question, I decided to have a look at this.
First off, there is no MacOS viewer available. This is a shame, but as the system uses Windows Media Player 10, there is no real solution for the moment. So, I started up Windows XP in Parallels (a virtualisation environment for Intel Macs).
To start with, I had to install WMP10. This was a typical Microsoft installation; took about half an hour, and required a reboot. Okay. Then, I was allowed to install the setup app for 4oD. It detected that I didn't have the .NET 2 runtime, and prompted me to download. I clicked 'yes'. Nothing happened. I clicked 'yes' again. After a minute or two, two .NET installation thingies appeared in the background. Went through the installation procedure for that, which took a while. Continued. Eventually, 4oD was installed.
I launched 4oD. Computer muttered to itself for a while, then informed me that I was missing DRM stuff. Clicked on the 'install' button, and after a while, all was well.
Finally, I was allowed use 4oD. It's effectively a website in a special window, but without niceties like a 'back' button. Highly confusing interface. I eventually tracked down the show I wanted, out of a selection of about fifteen free shows. At that point, I was told that I'd have to register. Now, I know that they like to be able to track who's watching what, but really, asking people to complete a largish form is a good way to drive them away; it might make more sense to give out the free content and only require registration for the paid stuff. Did email confirmation bit.
At this point, I should mention that the 4oD interface was painfully, horribly slow. This seems to be a problem with it rather than with the virtualisation; other large applications run quickly, and Media Player, when I finally got to it, worked fine.
Eventually, I was allowed to see the show. I clicked 'watch'. This launched an entirely external WMP window, hiding the 4oD interface. I sat through a couple of ads, then the show started.
The actual streaming was really quite good. It's (at least for this show) at 400Kbit/sec, so it should be fine with most 'broadband' services. You can jump to any point in the show fairly instantly, like Google Video but unlike YouTube. The video looked okay; images were lovely and clear, though motion was a little jerky.
The thing is that if this was nicely implemented, and easy to install and navigate, people would love it. Back-catalogues of many shows are available at about 99p per episode, which really isn't that bad, especially when you compare it to a DVD. As it is, though, you'd probably go half-mad trying to find and play these shows, and I'm not so sure that many people would bother. A clear case of having great content and concept, but badly messing up the user interface.
There is some hope for the future, though; a lot of the infrastructure is more or less the same as was used for BBC's iPlayer trial, and BBC has promised improvement, and a MacOS version, there. There are also apparently set-top boxes which can play 4oD stuff, presumably mostly limited to the UK.
It is tempting, though, to compare it to services like iTunes video, which seem to do more or less the same job (with different content) far better.