BBC iPlayer, Defective By Design Protest outside BBC Oxford Road in Manchester by Matt Lee (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

I protested BBC iPlayer in 2007, and I don’t regret it.

During the summer holidays of 2007, I was a teenage sailing instructor who was volunteering locally, to teach younger teens how to sail (better) for a week.

On Tuesday, I skived off teaching, jumped on a train to Manchester and changed my life forever.

But that’s not the beginning… A few months earlier I was prowling the school library looking for anything to dull the boredom of actually studying when I stuck my nose in the computer section, and found that, for some reason, they had a copy of Free As In Freedom, a biography of Richard Stallman.

In the book, Sam Williams, the author, interviews Stallman a number of times, and explores the backgrounds to his principled stances with regards to software.

In spring 2007, I ran Ubuntu and Windows XP in dual boot and so I found it very relevant to my interests and persuasive.

One weekend, I was reading The Register, and I saw a headline…

Free Software Foundation plans protests at ‘corrupt’ BBC

The article explained that planning protests outside the BBC headquarters in London and
“outside the corporation’s Manchester offices on Tuesday, 14 August.”

My ears pricked up…

At this point, you might be thinking:

iPlayer? You protested against iPlayer? Why? iPlayer is awesome.

Let’s go back to 2007.

When the BBC announced iPlayer with a fanfare it was to be:

  • Internet Explorer only, Windows-based peer to peer service
  • where you downloaded a DRM’d Windows media file
  • and the DRM meant you could only watch it for 30 days.

To make the perception of a dotCom era Microsoft: “embrace, extend, extinguish” even worse, Ashley Highfield, the BBC manager in charge of delivering it was an ex-Microsoft exec. Small world eh?

When pressed about the lack of cross platform support, the BBC said:

“It is not possible to put an exact timeframe on when BBC iPlayer will be available for Mac users. However, we are working to ensure this happens as soon as possible and the BBC Trust will be monitoring progress on a six monthly basis.”

To be it seemed incredible, that in 2007, our national broadcaster could release a platform that I was unable to use without a Windows operating system and to exclude Mac, Linux and emerging mobile platforms – it just seemed such a massive strategic error on the BBC’s part.

And I kept thinking

“I really like the idea… Just not the implementation. Not this implementation.”

I barely knew Manchester, and even getting from Piccadilly Station to the Oxford Road BBC building seemed like a large challenge to me. I’d never been to a protest before, I’d never spoken to any techies who weren’t family, friends or classmates, and I was somewhat terrified. I had no idea what to expect.

The protest itself was actually relatively low key – the concept was that DRM was defective by design, and by extension so was iPlayer. So we stood outside the BBC in hazmat suits, with placards, and handed out leaflets to passersby.

BBC iPlayer, Defective By Design Protest outside BBC Oxford Road in Manchester by Matt Lee (CC-BY-SA 2.0)
BBC iPlayer, Defective By Design Protest outside BBC Oxford Road in Manchester by Matt Lee (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Afterwards, we retired across the road, to the upstairs of Odder Bar; for me this seemed like the first criteria for success: it appeared that no-one had been arrested, or hurt.

The protest had been organised by Matt Lee with help from Noah Slater, and as a result I became involving in the first days of Manchester Free Software group, and started hanging out and demonstrating naive youthfulness in various related IRC channels.

The first talk I went to was about hosting and free software and was by Matthew Bloch of Bytemark Hosting… Hmmmm.

As a direct result of getting to know people, Noah first gifted me the domain, and Matt gave a xen VM on his Bytemark dedicated server to play with for a while.

I continued to debate BBC iPlayer strategy on the BBC Backstage mailing list, I made friends with Dave Crossland and Ian Forrester, and as a result, later on I ended up contracting for the BBC and living with Ian.. but that’s another story.

In addition, I started to discover the other emerging communities in Manchester, I remember dragging myself to the “BSD User Group” – essentially a drinking club with jolly good taste for pubs, Geekup, currybeer and my first barcamp of many more.

And BBC iPlayer?

After some drama where Ashley Highfield annoyed Linux users some more, and I suggested he talk to Groklaw, and he did, they quickly put together a compromise: a streaming solution via Adobe Flash.

By January 2008, the Register was reporting:

The BBC’s Flash-based streaming service has gifted a massive traffic boost to the iPlayer site since it went live in mid-December, independent figures have revealed.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a project that was floundering a few months back. The DRM-timebombed and buggy P2P version limped into the limelight in summer 2007 after years of troubled development.

It had attracted consternation from Apple, Linux and Windows Firefox users, who were shut out by the use of Microsoft DRM, despite being the people most likely to be early adopters of new net services.

The cross platform iPlayer you know and love is the great grandson of this service.

I like to think my criticism of the implementation helped iPlayer achieve the success, just much like the BBC’s initially poor choice of platform, helped me find my feet in the world of technology.

How can the free software movement improve its communication?

One thing that is challenging the free software movement is communication.

Communication skills are quite a “known skill” – persuading people is not really cutting edge – people have been persuading other people about $stuff since forever.


The question is, therefore, how we can be better at communicating free software, given we know how things, historically, have worked for others?

Example 1: The Open Data Movement.
The open data movement is not the same as the free software movement, but *is* much younger.The open data movement has had considerable success in various fields, and considering that in 2008, barely anyone had heard of it, has had a meteoric rise to popularity.

Why is that? What has it done that we can copy and emulate?

Example 2: Wikimedia Foundation.
Wikipedia is not, in essence, a free software project (it’s a free knowledge project) but it communicates better than the free software movement.

Find someway you’re happy with to watch their videos and tell me they don’t manage to communicate in powerful ways::

The Impact of Wikipedia

Children in Peru write their own history on Wikipedia
The free software movement has code that powers millions of servers, that runs in space, that has connected millions of people, that has underlined millions of businesses… but we don’t talk about it.

Perhaps we could start doing? How?

Example 3: Coding as standard for schools.
In the UK we’ve seen massive boosts in young people coding – there’s a massive push to get young people not just to be passive consumers but to be creators. This is the proverbial, “everyone plays games, but only a few people know how to make them” or “everyone uses apps on their phone, but how can you personally make one?”. With the rPi and all that that brings, we have free software, for the first time ever, being pushed into the hands of school children.

This is tremendous news – and a massive opportunity. How can we communicate better about this?
Find someway you’re happy to watch this:

Mark Zuckerberg on helping others learn to code

(How the above got 9 million views this year)

It’s 2013. From that video, go back and look at how many people in that video, work for organisations that aren’t businesses primarily based around free software infrastructure. I count, two, arguably soon, one?

In 2013, to have a job, how can you afford for it not to be free software? how can we communicate that if you’re looking for work in today’s world, employers are crying out for experience with free software systems? I mean, really, seriously, isn’t a threat, it’s a joke. How can we get that across to people?

Basically, I think better things could be done, and the people who do those things, are the ones that will choose which way the future goes.

The free software movement’s dilemma

The free software movement’s aims are noble and I’m happy to say I support them.

However, there are largely two ways of furthering the movement:

  1. Communication of the message
  2. Contributing to a software project

Largely, the ideological “free software advocates” are focused on the first point, with people who are doing the second point falling into a much larger and vaguer group of people who happen to find various things convenient.

The problem is that nothing remotely interesting has developed in the field of free software advocacy (point 1) in a long time – probably since the release of GPLv3. There have been no new approaches, no reaches out to the public, and no answers to the question of what happens next. Things just stagnated.

The Ubuntu project has done a good job of communication in the past, but it has never communicated the free software movement’s aims, and the free software movement has always stropped like a angsty child, or a peed off record company association.  Make no mistake, Ubuntu has problems, but simply shouting “Ubuntu isn’t free” isn’t a clear and effective way to communicate the free software movement’s aims.

The problem, of course, is it is an activist movement of techies: outward communication is not a skill that comes naturally.

But outward communication *must* be the skill the movement is best at.

Communication and promotion of the free software movement has to be the primary skill of activists, and researching how to develop those skills must be the highest priority.

When I campaigned around Manchester for my political campaigns, we ran training workshops for activists, we helped everyone practice, we released videos and put them in places where people would see them, we picked up timely press issues and offered comment on them.

Not sure what you should do, or where to start? Read a book. There are loads on this sort of thing, and the advice within can make a really big difference.

In essence, I think the free software movement can do better. A lot better. And you, the person reading this, should be apart of the start.

Think this: how better can you communicate the free software movement’s message?

How does free software take over the world? What happens now?

I love free software, I owe a lot to the free software communities and I care deeply about them. However, I am a realist and a pragmatist, so I’d like to ask a question that’s been bothering me.

Free Software has proven itself technologically, and proven itself in terms of creating an efficient working environment for developers, however, people never seem to mention the end game.

As far as I can see, free software has proven itself as “useful” from a developer’s point of view, “fun” from a power users, and “morally good” from a free software advocate’s point of view, but for general users, the benefits are less distinct – why would a user, pick free software, over non-free software?

Not why “should” – I’m very capable of explaining of benefits that most developers see (they won’t be tied in, they can fix stuff, pay other people to fix stuff, etc) but I’m actually trying to understand it from a non-technical user’s point of view, what they would actually get out of free software that they’d prefer, and trigger the mass adoption of free software?

As far as I can see it, users is motivated by:

  • What is best for them.
  • What is easiest.
  • What works.

(with various socio-economic decisions involving price, based on the situation.)

Do people envisage that in the future, users will see “free software” as the “ethical choice” – in the same manner people buy fair trade food stuffs, or why some people make lifestyle choices and go vegetarian or vegan?

If you were to imagine a sci-fi future where, free software was “standard” in the general populace, why would that be? Why would they have come to that point? Would they have all understood technology to the point required to understand source code, or would they choose free software for some kind of abstract reason?

I’d suggest that we’ll never see more than about 10% of users really ever choosing to use free software for ‘ethical reasons’ – fair trade branded items are far from being the most popular, and other “ethically” motivated product lives, in this country at least, have also not succeeded in dominating a market.

But “winning” is hardly defined as having 10% of everyone, and whilst ostentatiously, popularity is not the free software movements main goal, and hasn’t been for many years, RMS has recently been focusing more on this area.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts – do leave a comment if you have ideas.

If you can explain a rational and pragmatic scenario, in which free software becomes *preferable* to End Users, I promise, next time we meet, to buy you a beverage of your choice (under £4).

Stephen Fry at Oggcamp? Awesome or Awesome?

It’s not often I go to events were well known people are speaking. It’s even less frequently where the tech events I go to have well known broadcaster speaking.

However, Oggcamp – the world’s friendliest unconference – is a special sort of event and persuading Stephen Fry to give a video address, answering questions and his relationship with technology went down very well indeed!

Some memorable quotes:

Do I use Linux on any of my devices? Yes – I use Ubuntu these days – it seems the friendliest.

Sometimes I do worry that they [Apple] are a bit tyrannical and a bit silly.

Facebook is really just AOL but brushed up for the modern user generated content world.

It’s really quite watchable:

Stephen Fry – OggCamp 12 Interview

Remembering being taught Applied ICT at A Level

I recently noticed that I got quoted in The Information Age, at the beginning of the year due to the UK Cyber Security Challenge.:

“Tim Dobson, a 20-year-old university student, does not remember his IT A-level course fondly. “In one lesson, our teacher asked us how to find the YouTube website,” he recalled.

Dobson added that he had always been interested in pursuing an IT career, but it “would have helped if the course was not such a failure”. He dropped out of his course before completing it.”

It’s funny, I don’t remember being a university student, but sadly, that anecdote about YouTube is correct.

Back in 2007, I was in an Applied ICT (Double award) A level lesson. These were one of the most dull things I’ve encountered in my life.

The class was working and suddenly the tutor, who’s also working on a computer asks the room,

What’s the address of ‘youtube’?

Sadly, no one responded

*ahem*. Let me just google that for you


Shouldn’t you be teaching us that?

We were too stunned.

In the end, someone just muttered “” across the room.

Several years on, I asked one of my classmates whether they remembered those lessons:

Unfortunately I do… I loved wasting 2 years of my life that I’ll never get back.

Which is pretty much how I feel about it.

There were positive reactions to such a negative experience – my involvement with the free software community, the formation of DFEY and the building of direct links with technology companies in the area would never have happened if I hadn’t had such a bad experience.

I can’t help but wonder, however, what would have happened if it hadn’t been the way it was – contrary to the article above, despite some attempts by the college to remove me, I completed the course.

To this day, I’m still very proud to have passed an A Level in Applied ICT, at Grade E.


Post Script: It looks like almost everyone has at least one story like this. Here is my friend Josh Pickett’s!

Hellicar & Lewis at Northern Digitals BLAB Night

Hellicar & Lewis gave a talk in June at Northern Digitals BLAB Night.

It was a really awesome talk so I was very pleased that it was videoed.

I really really enjoyed the talk – look at some of my reactions on

“This has been one my favorite and inspiring events I’ve been to this year.”

This was a quote from my the evening it took place. I still stand by it.

I really recommend watching it, and checking out OpenFrameworks

David Cameron champions “Open Source Software”

David Cameron, the UK Conservative party leader, has stepped in to champion Open Source Software.

As an active member of Manchester Free Software Group I would prefer he used the term Free Software instead of Open Source, however it is extremely interesting he has taken this issue to heart.

With Labour having only made a few half hearted attempts to look at Free Software and open Source Software and being famed for their multimillion pound bespoke failed ICT systems running propriety software, which should really have been Free Software.

In a web log entry, Cameron apparently regularly writes to, he talked about an event he recently went to at NESTA.

Cameron said:

“We’ll champion open source software, not big clunking mainframe solutions. No more NHS computers, much more open platform projects that can be broken down into their component parts.”

For Free Software in the UK, this is a historic step forward as a major political party takes a firm stance to encourage more true innovation in the UK, and help the Open Source and Free Software communities.

The next questions:

Does David Cameron support Open Source in Education and Government systems?
How will this announcement impact the Free Software community?

If you have an opinion on this news from the Conservative Party, please comment.

Disclaimer: Generally, I don’t hold political allegiances, I look at certain policies and make my judgements on them. For better or for worse, these policies are tech related issues which I feel strongly about. I feel that the British Government should be using much more Free Software in public services and education.