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Interesting Stuff 2009-0408 - Erik Huggers Ariel Interview

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Dave Lee | 13:31 UK time, Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Editor's note: In this week's issue of Ariel, the BBC's staff newspaper, Alex Goodey interviewed Erik Huggers, Director, BBC Future Media & Technology. Thanks to Ariel and Alex for allowing us to republish this edited version:

Alex Goodey: What's your reaction to the awards the BBC iPlayer has garnered in the past few weeks - four in total. You must be delighted?

Erik Huggers: More than delighted. They just keep coming in. it's a great recognition of the hard work of the team in FM&T, and of the fantastic programmes that the BBC's content division creates.

At the end of the day the reason the project was so successful in my opinion was a combination of great technology with great programmes, marketed in a way that consumers understand. It's the BBC working together and making a sea change in the industry.

AG: What comes next for the consumers, after a very successful first year you must feel like there is little else left to conquer...

EH: This is the tip of the iceberg. We have about half a million unique users using iPlayer every single day, but there's quite a few more people on the internet who haven't yet used iPlayer, so what comes next is we want to make sure we reach as many people as possible, number one. That's a drive for broader adoption of the iPlayer.

Secondly, we're working on iPlayer version 3. We're looking at a whole new look and feel for the service, and we're also going to introduce some new nifty little features, some of which have been in the iPlayer lab for a while, some of which are new altogether.

AG: We've been hearing a lot about open source recently. Why is it so important, and why is the BBC promoting it?

EH: In a funny sort of way, you get audiences not just to be audiences, but more and more people have capability in writing and developing software, and if you can embrace the power of the many to develop an application, that's a very interesting way of working. We can throw thousands of people at developing an application, but if you can do it in a way where people can build on top of what you put out, it'll get better adoption, it'll get more stable products, it'll be more feature-rich.

We've got a long history of doing that, for example we recently visited Kingswood Warren with Mark Thompson for the BBC R&D folks, and they have build a product called Ingex (automated tapeless production software). That's completely open-source software. We contributed it to the industry, it's getting adoption and people are building new features. So we benefit, they benefit. A very positive thing.

AG: Would you say open-source is an in-house move as well as an external one?

Can software spend be justified when free software in the open-source arena can do the job just as well and sometimes better than paid-for software?

EH: I think without a shadow of a doubt there is still a very important role to be played by paid-for software and even for software we end up developing ourselves.

If you look at what we're trying to do across the entire value chain some of the stuff has never been done before so you can't even go and buy it, even if you wanted to buy it, even if you wanted to get it for free, it doesn't exist yet so some of the - call it the line of business functionalities that are particular to our industry - you just cannot find elsewhere.

Now, over time that will come but I think we have an important role as a catalyst in that space and so what we try to do is try to find the right balance from a value for money point of view with an audience benefit point of view with what do we need for functionality to empower the business to get its stuff done. So sometimes that means we buy existing pieces of software and we do a systems integration job on it, other times we say gosh it doesn't exist yet and we have to build it ourselves and I don't think it's a straightforward answer - it really depends on what situation you're in.

Dispelling iPlayer myths

AG: Is iPlayer likely to be put into the public domain, open source, so the audience can start developing its own add ons?

EH: There's a common misconception as to what iPlayer really is.

iPlayer is not a bit of software that you can stick on a disk and give to someone - 'Here's your iPlayer'. What you see as a consumer is the least complicated thing of the entire service. The most complicated thing of the entire service is the back end, call it the engine room, the plumbing, making all of the proprietary systems that we have in place talk to each other, work with each other and get those workflows to actually work.

We've had many broadcasters from around the world call us to ask 'can we licence the iPlayer?' and we say 'we're flattered that you're asking us but the truth is we couldn't do it even if we wanted to'.

I think what we can do, however, is in the digital Britain response we have posed the idea of sharing iPlayer, in other words, could we help ITV set up their own iPlayer? So literally - itv.com/iplayer, so you go there you'd get the iPlayer but with ITV content.

So there is no such thing as putting it out there. What we could end up doing is a world where we make some of our own, we expose some of the APIs and allow others to build services on top of our services and those are things that we're absolutely thinking about."

Erik Huggers was interviewed by Alex Goodey

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