Technology

Answers about Android

Plastic Android operating system robots

This may surprise some of you, but I'm not in charge of the BBC's Christmas schedule. I also have no editorial control over our output - even when it comes to technology stories - and I have no role in creating or maintaining the iPlayer and its various associated apps. But I still get asked about all these issues - and the one thing that comes up most frequently at the moment is the BBC's attitude to Android.

Why, when Android devices now have a much bigger share of the smartphone market than Apple, does the iPhone get BBC apps first? Why does the iPlayer run more smoothly on the iPhone and iPad, and when will Android users get the same ability to download as well as stream programmes? These and other questions fill my inbox and my Twitterstream.

But as I said, this is not my job, so I asked Daniel Danker, the BBC's head of iPlayer, apps and all that stuff, to explain. He started by outlining what looked like very ambitious plans to boost the BBC's Android capability, with a bigger team than that working on Apple devices.

"If you look at the amount of energy we spend on Apple, it pales in comparison to what we spend on Android. And that's right - we agree with the audience." But he then outlined the challenges involved:

RCJ: Why is there this gap between the BBC's offering for Apple and Android - I've heard talk that it's all about the fragmentation of the Android ecosystem?

DD: "It's not just fragmentation of the operating system - it is the sheer variety of devices. Before Ice Cream Sandwich (an early variant of the Android operating system) most Android devices lacked the ability to play high quality video. If you used the same technology as we've always used for iPhone, you'd get stuttering or poor image quality. So we're having to develop a variety of approaches for Android."

RCJ: Why don't you just forget the older devices and concentrate on new ones?

DD: "People write to us saying just that, why bother supporting older devices, why don't you just start with - and then they insert whichever model of phone they have. But more than a quarter of our requests to iPlayer come from devices running Gingerbread. And the number one device contacting us is still the Samsung Galaxy S2, which can't handle advanced video."

RCJ: Why do you bother with Flash or Air, and what's your strategy from now on?

DD: "Right now they provide the only means of playing video across the entire population of devices. We don't love the one-size-fits-all approach but we can't have an individual approach for each device, so we're going to find a middle ground.

"We're grouping devices by profile. We'll do advanced video for medium-sized devices with three- to five-inch screens, advanced video for larger devices like the Kindle Fire in a different way, and lower quality video for devices like the Samsung Galaxy S2 that aren't quite so capable of handling high-end video."

RCJ: But YouTube and Netflix seem to have cracked this - why can't you?

DD: "YouTube has lower expectations of quality, and they have no issues with content protection. Netflix has good quality but it builds the entire video player on phones - they have to reengineer for every device. That is costing a lot of money and as a public service broadcaster we don't have the resources to do that. People also say everybody else is doing it, but that's not true. Neither the ITV Player nor 4OD offers a full Android service."

[I thought Daniel was wrong about ITV - there is an app, but when I downloaded it onto a couple of devices, I found the experience very poor. And the reviews on the Google Play store are even worse than those for the BBC app.]

Using tablet devices
The experience for Android users will soon catch up

RCJ: Let's take a couple of examples of features which are available for Apple users - the iPlayer radio app and video downloads. Why are Android users waiting?

DD: "Believe it or not, we started work on the iPlayer radio app for Android on the same day as the one for the iPhone, but we're still resolving a number of issues. Background audio, for example. When you leave the app you want the Today programme to keep on running. That worked out of the box on Apple, but not on Android, and we're just getting there now.

"As for iPlayer video downloads, that's about sequencing. We didn't want to launch downloads while the video playback quality wasn't great. Now we've sorted that, downloads are around the corner."

RCJ: So what can you say about how quickly things will improve for the Android community?

DD: "By the end of 2013, it will be a distant memory of when Android was vastly different from iOS. We're moving very quickly now. We've just solved the experience on seven-inch tablets, we've upgraded for Jellybean 4.2. It will never be as easy to develop for Android as Apple because of the variety of devices, but we're not upset about that - it's where the audience is. Apple may punch above its weight in users accessing video and so on, but much of the Android audience are just the kind of people we want to reach, people who've never used their phones before in this way.

"And there are big advantages to the Android platform. Whenever we want to launch something new we just do it, without waiting for approval. And then there is multi-tasking, which you can't do on Apple. Once we solve the basics, there are a lot of things about the platform that will be extremely powerful."

So - some answers to a few of your questions. I'm sure the Android community will have plenty more.

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