With Highfield gone, the BBC must now open up

As Ashley Highfield leaves the post of the BBC’s director of future media and technology to head up Project Kangaroo (the joint online video platform for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4) one wonders what a startup – or even several startups – could do with the £400m budget he controlled at the BBC. Highfield had a £131 million to digitise the BBC’s production and multiplatform output, the biggest output of which was the late and over-engineered iPlayer. The answer is probably quite a lot, but let’s get over the fact that the BBC is important to the cultural and political life of the UK and it’s not going anywhere. That’s not the issue here – the issue is where and how it spends it’s massive budget.

What the BBC has are two things which could help power innovation in the UK: the ability to link its enormous site traffic to early-stage startup sites. Secondly, it has an awful lot of data which, if made available, would form the basis of some interesting startups out there which could at least use it to prove a concept.

Sure, the BBC Innovation Labs programme gets a lot of plaudits and the work it has done has won a lot of praise for creative technologists, application designers and others. Also BBC Backstage has worked for some years now on creating APIs and RSS feeds. And notably it supported and ran the Over The Air develper conference recently, among others, including HackDay.

But we have also seen the BBC (especially under Highfield’s long reign since 2000) do what most large, state funded bodies do, which is enter into mission-creep: trying to extend its reach into more and more places with its content, without necessarily letting smaller companies in on the action.
With all respect to the guys I know over at the BBC, I feel it could do a whole lot more. Having been on the receiving end when the BBC once randomly linking to a news site I was working on (but never again) I would say it could start with linking out to UK startups more, rather than remaining as obsessed with Silicon Valley as the rest of the tech press is. That may be an editorial issue in BBC News tech dept, but other parts of the site could do much more.

Highfield was also known for building a team around him smarter than he was about tech. But it couldn’t save him from various gaffs such as his bizarre claim, later recanted, that only 600 UK Linux users use the BBC website. Hopefully his replacement will be more au fait.

His successor also needs to join the debate about social networks and data portability, for instance. What about the ability to log in to the BBC Action Network? Is this not a social network? Why has the BBC never built a Facebook-like developer platform for instance?

So who is in the frame as a possible replacement?

The role will be open to external candidates, but speculation has focused on Erik Huggers, appointed from Microsoft last May as group controller for future media. Today, one of my sources told me: “Ashley’s done a lot, but as a new dad he’s probably looking forward to a slightly less hectic lifestyle. Kangaroo should fit him quite well. Really good things happening here though: some good new announcements coming shortly. Huggers is good at the “don’t ship and forget” stuff: hence continuous improvement for iplayer etc.”

The Guardian today quotes sources who say “There’s a belief that [Huggers] was brought in specially and was being trained up for the job.” They also say “He makes stuff happen and is very hands-on. He is a very accomplished public speaker, has a very broad knowledge and will knock heads together.”
Other candidates might be John Ousby, head of distribution technologies, audio and music interactive, BBC; BBC Vision controller of multiplatform and portfolio, Simon Nelson, was also a strong contender (where do they get all these job titles?!); Richard Deverill, the current controller of the childrens’ Vision is another likely internal candidate along with Nic Newman, the controller of journalism in the future media and technology department; and Tony Ageh, currently the controller of internet, is another possible candidate.

But to be any good Huggers would have to cut the apron strings from Microsoft – ties which saw it develop a pointless Kontiki application which didn’t work on Macs, when it could have gone straight to the Web – as it ended up doing.

In 2003, Highfield was awarded the Digital Innovator internet award by The Sunday Times for his vision of a digital Britain. Ok then, where is it? From where I’m sitting the combined power of the BBC and London’s financial sector are doing a pretty good jobs of sucking a lot of the talent up that might otherwise go into creating a few more Bebo’s, Last.FM’s and Skypes of this world.

And if the BBC was so good under Highfield why did major talents leave for new pastures e.g Tom Coates (now with Yahoo Brickhouse building FireEagle) or Matt Locke (now with Channel 4 which is actually funding a startup with real money) or Ben Metcalfe (now building MySace/ OpenSocial / Seesmic).

We need to remember that the iPlayer was in fact officially announced at least three times, rebranded twice, trialled several times and saw more than £3m invested in its development, even before it’s switch to a Flash version. And does anyone care to mention BBC jam’s dead-on-arrival digital curriculum?

The Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson correctly noted that Highfield had been little more than a good politician who has struggled to fulfill the glitzy promises he made to the media.

Highfield’s last blog post last week was “we will do what we can to help drive broadband penetration and adoption, for the benefit of all players. I’ll do a longer post when I’ve read more of the comments/reactions across the web.”
Lovely, but it’s not the BBC which has driven adoption of online services, but things like Hotmail, Facebook and Google. And yet the BBC seems happy to throw a few bones in the direction of startups and developers in the form of nice weekends away in country hotels for the companies and some sleeping bags for the hackers.

One source told MediaGuardian last year: “iPlayer is swarming with people. They’re throwing more and more people at it – a classic mistake – while McKinsey suits run around carrying wads of paper and trying to look important. The BBC often tries to be a software development company, and fails every time.”

Perhaps the BBC should just get out of the way, open up and let the real tech startups loose?

So, here’s the deal:
Dear BBC,

What we want is your data, a lot more APIs, developer tools and your traffic.

We’ve paid for it already in the license fee.

Now get on with it.

Yours Sincerely,

The UK’s Startups



Aqute Research has decided to weigh in on the side of the BBC. Note, the BBC is their client (screen grab) (Update2: The BBC was a client, 2 years ago, I hear from a Beeb person):

Here’s what I wrote on their blog:

They say: “The argument that the BBC depriving potential startups of funds or publicity is the very reason that these startups don’t exist, is not very credible.”

I say: I’m not arguing this. I’m arguing that the BBC could do much more to open up its platform and its data to third party startups. It’s not funding they necessarily need (although that’s always handy) but data on which to build new interesting services which, hell, the BBC might actually like!

They say: “the startups that are succesful don’t complain that the BBC got in their way”

I say: I don’t know where you have been for the last 10 years but that is no the feedback I have had from countless startups I have spoken to in 10 years of reporting this space.

They say: “Don’t assume that normal people (licence fee payers) want the BBC to fund startups”

I say: Hey, guess what? Normal people don’t understand data. That doesn’t meant the BBC couldn’t release more.

They say: “Last.fm (the company that few normal people have heard of”

I say: Listen, plenty of people will hear about it when the giant CBS starts doing interesting things with its new purchase.

They say that I say: “the BBC is doing badly”

I say: I don’t say the BBC is doing badly in content. I say the BBC is doing badly in opening up its *DATA*. Something apparently you agree with: “there are a million things the BBC could be doing (including, yes, opening up its data)”