Archives for April 2008

BBC iPlayer On Virgin Media TV

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Rahul Chakkara Rahul Chakkara | 08:00 UK time, Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Today is another significant day for BBC iPlayer as it launches on its first TV platform: Virgin Media.

virgin media logoAs of this morning, anyone with Virgin Media TV can press the red button from any BBC channel and access the iPlayer directly on their television.

tv iplayer

Getting the iPlayer into the living room is a big deal for me. Since its early development, I've been asked often whether it would be available on television. Why? Well, because the programmes are made for television, and mainstream audiences like to watch them from the comfort of their armchairs and on the TV.

We've already launched a version on the Nintendo Wii, which enables users to access the iPlayer via their consoles and watch via their TVs. With today's launch, we are now able to offer broadcast-quality on-demand programmes in a navigation constructed for the television audience and which works on the remote control. A couple of clicks, and you get full-screen video at high quality with no buffering.

The programme offering is pretty much the same as that which you get on the web, although there are some exceptions due to rights. Regional variations, radio programmes and some acquistions are not available at present. However, we hope this will change in due course. We also hope to be able to offer High Definition programmes too!

It has been a long and challenging project. The first challenge was around navigation: how do you help people find the programmes which they want to watch when there is so much to choose from, and in a way which is easy to do on a TV with a remote control?

tv iplayer

Fortunately, we were able to build on years of designing interactive television services. Simplicity is the key to attract a wide range of viewers, including many who are in no way tech-savvy. After user testing, we arrived at simple list-based navigation.

But I think the real winner may well be the Search - something which had never really been tried on a TV before, but which we thought was essential to have in such an extensive service. It proved really popular in the user testing. For the next version, search will be more prominent.

tv iplayer search

The second challenge was technical: the assets are encoded in MPEG2 format. The application, like our other interactive applications, is written in Liberate. The assets are played back using Virgin's Seachange VoD systems. The integration across the systems of BBC, Red Bee, Siemens and Virgin took a long time. Problems we faced included metadata work (much longer than any of us expected); reducing the time it takes for a programme to appear on the TV to within an hour (the technical term for this is "propagation latency"); increasing application speed and making it work on many different variants of set-top box.

The next step is to make it available elsewhere, so that BBC iPlayer is available on a range of TV platforms - where technically possible, of course. Talks are underway, and I'll update you as soon as possible.

And if you're a Virgin subscriber, please try it and let us know your feedback - and any ideas for improvement.

Rahul Chakkara is Controller, TV Platforms, BBC Future Media & Technology

Digital Democracy: A Response To Marko

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Andy Williamson | 11:37 UK time, Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Editor's note: Andy's response to Marko Tusar's comments on his post about Digital Democracy was so detailed that I thought it would be useful to turn it into a new post as well as a comment. Marko's questions are in italics. [Nick Reynolds, Editor, BBC Internet Blog]

1) Do you think local representatives are worth voting for or even remembering? Why?

Yes, I do. I believe local knowledge and connections are important. The internet might make things more global, but it also accentuates the local.

2) Do you think there should be more tangible evidence of politicians making decisions and having views?

Sticking to online, I think this already exists - TheyWorkForYou allows me track how my MP voted and to monitor what they said.

3) Politicians have failed to keep up with the transformation of society made possible in part by the forms of networked individualism associated with the internet. Why do you think that is?

It's a basic adoption cycle... our politicians tend to be in the demographic that falls into the later adopter category for ICT and the internet in particular.

4) Would you regard the popular march against the war in Iraq as "self-motivated, viral, emergent and temporal"? If not, why not? What criteria do you use to make your assessment?

Yes, I probably would and that's a very good parallel to draw. Why? Because it emerged out of a ground-swell of public opinion 1) deciding that was being done was wrong; 2) feeling motivated enough to do something about it and 3) getting together with like-minded people to act together. It's actually a classic internet model for disruption only carried out in the real world.

In fact, this probably makes a good argument about why we must focus on people and not technology (so thanks for the analogy). Of course, one might also argue that ultimately it has been a largely ineffective social movement in that it has clearly had an effect but has failed to secure the desired result. A warning for online too, I suspect.

5) "[o]ld and new ways of engaging clash headlong like rutting stags". Please describe what you mean in detail about new ways of working, and the main barriers that have prevented politicians from adopting them. What are the main sources of resistance?

Old democratic practices are elitist and inward looking; government values its own views above those of individual citizens. New media transforms this model so that more views can be heard, democracy can be more deliberative and - if anyone is listening - decisions can be made based on a much wider input. These models are polar opposites; the challenge is finding the balance between old and new - it's not either/or, but somewhere in between.

6) "Digital technologies can't of themselves change the nature of engagement". Why do you think you put down the role of digital technology? Isn't it allowing this very act of communication that wouldn't be possible otherwise, and therefore significantly changing the nature of engagement?

Yes it is, but to elevate the role is to be technologically deterministic and this is a flawed argument - change occurs because of people, not technology.

7) "The new worldview enabled by the internet remains so alien to many of those inside the fortress of government that innovative ideas fail to gain any traction". Is this a general comment about traction of innovation, or one specifically associated with the Internet? What are the current communication channels for innovation?

Well, yes, I'd probably agree with you that this comment applies beyond the internet. Ironically, the civil services are now being encouraged to be more innovative but this has to be contextualized within the existing culture, I guess.

8) "This is why the internet alone will not solve the problems of democratic disconnection, particularly when it is used to enable the very institutions of power that people no longer trust". I have difficulties following this logic. To me, this appears to be saying that it won't work because politicians don't use the internet?!!!

No, I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that relying on technology without making the necessary process transformations or demonstrating the benefits to people won't work. Adoption comes from personal motivation; discontinuous adoption will come from value derived from new processes that technology supports.

9) "Online" is still largely out of mind for politicans. Have you asked politicians why this is so? If not, what answer do you predict?

Yes. See 3 above!

10) Have you asked politicans if they want to "move the political debate back to citizens"? Did they wholeheartedly agree? Perhaps they could post here.

Yes and yes many of them do... in fact, I still believe that most MPs are there because they believe they can improve people's lives and most want to find more effective ways of keeping in touch with constituents (not least, it can help secure their re-election, which might seem self-serving but see 7) above about personal motivation).

11) You confuse accessibility of broadband with having a dedicated broadband connection at home. Many very poor countries rely on shared communal connections in places such a libraries and cafes. Has the social status, education and wealth of politicians been a barrier to internet use such as posting opinions on a blog, or creating a blog?

No, I don't. This comment is absolutely intentionally written as it stands. I agree completely with your comment about access through places other than home, but I have seen over and over again in my own research that adoption and value is directly related to proximity of access. It should be a policy aim to ensure that people have access to the internet where and when they need it - that can and should include libraries and community centres but it must focus on access in the home, workplace and school.

12) After being elected, in what sense can an MP represent the views of thousands of people? Can you give examples of effective influence?

This goes back to the core tenets of representative democracy. I'm also not sure what you mean by "represent" versus "influence" here... there are certainly examples of the internet being used to influence political opinion. The obvious one is the 10 Downing St road toll petition. Personally, I don't believe this did anything that wouldn't have happened anyway but I do believe it significantly reduced the time it took the government to feel the full force of public opinion.

13) "allowing citizens to pass judgement on what their elected representative do and say in real time". Would some tangible record of an MPs choices and decision help in this case? With the existing "Have Your Say" forum, can you demonstrate how this has influenced MPs?

It's problematic that there doesn't appear to be any real evaluation of the effectiveness of sites such as this or TheyWorkForYou. Anecdotally, they appear to have value, but it's hard to draw conclusions beyond that.

14) The government has naturally filtered out blacks, Asians and women from the highest levels for many years. Why do you think politicians are going to be any more objective with the views of the public, if they are so easily swayed by skin colour and gender?

Yes, sadly the current system continues to be skewed not just by race and gender but also social class. I think there is a strong movement within disenfranchised groups to raise their profile and voice their opinions, the internet assists this but nothing will guarantee that people are listened to; again, this is a social issue and it requires a shift in culture. Hopefully, this will occur over time in part because of the way the internet can break down silos and barriers.

It's a depressing thought to end on, perhaps, but there remains the risk that the internet is simply colonized by those in power as a way of retaining their power. It requires others to stake claims in these spaces for this to change; passivity won't work.

Andy Williamson is the Director of eDemocracy programmes at the Hansard Society. Marko Tusar is a Support Consultant, Journalism, BBC Future Media & Technology.

Homepage Two Months On: Your Feedback

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James Price | 10:23 UK time, Monday, 28 April 2008

Thanks for your responses [comments | reactions via Tehnorati | reactions via Google] to my post below, Homepage Two Months On.

Let me reassure everyone that video won't be playing automatically when you visit the BBC homepage. We hate it when that happens too! There'll be a static picture with a "click to play" button, along with the ability to mute the sound. Further down the line, subtitles may be available, too. And we don't intend to serve up video clips all of the time: text and photographs will continue to be part of the mix up in that top section of the page.

AndyAutomatic and others are quite right to point out the limitations the current cookie-based method of storing your preferences. There is a project underway which will enable users to keep the same profile, whatever computer they use. You'll have to be patient with us though, as this "portable identity" is still some months away.

It's interesting that not everyone is keen on the idea of non-BBC widgets, and I take the point that there are plenty of alternatives if you want to check your webmail and whatnot. However, for those who want the BBC set as their main portal page onto the internet, it's important. Indeed, we've had quite a bit of feedback from people specifically requesting the ability to add non-BBC services. But there's no need to fear the page getting cluttered (saintrumbly), as such widgets won't be visible on the page by default. Only those specifically seeking them out will see them.

Perhaps I should have made it clearer that new stuff won't be appearing on the beta immediately... but by the end of May, you should start seeing new modules and other enhancements sliding into view.

And for those wanting a sneak preview, here's a draft design of the upcoming "food" widget...


James Price is the editor of the BBC homepage.

BBC iPlayer, James Murdoch & The Online TV Marketplace

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Erik Huggers Erik Huggers | 15:55 UK time, Friday, 25 April 2008

PDF of James Murdoch lectureJames Murdoch clearly thinks that the isn't a bad product at all, according to comments that he made at a Q&A session after the UK Marketing Society's annual lecture [pdf of full speech via MediaGuardian].

While I'm delighted by this, there are a couple of points that he makes about the iPlayer's impact on competition which deserve comment.

First and foremost, his claim that iPlayer is "squashing" a lot of competitors: when the BBC's on demand proposal (of which iPlayer was a key part) was submitted to the BBC Trust, it went through a rigourous approval process.

This included, crucially, a market impact assessment from Ofcom, and the Trust imposed a number of conditions on the proposal to take account of market impact issues. Not only this, but BSkyB actually contributed to both the market impact assessment and the consultation on the Trust's provisional conclusions.

Additionally, his claim that iPlayer "crowds out competition" contrasts with comments like those made by Sarah Rose (head of video-on demand and channel development at Channel 4) back in March that

The launch of the BBC's iPlayer has undoubtedly boosted our service.

We believe that BBC iPlayer has already played, and will continue to play, a significant role in popularising TV viewing online to the benefit of all - including licence fee payers, other broadcasters and content producers.

Eric Huggers is Group Controller, BBC Future Media & Technology

Homepage Two Months On

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James Price | 13:48 UK time, Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Update 2008-04-28: James has replied to comments in this new post.

It's been two months since the new BBC homepage launched, and we've had a chance to take stock.

We've listened to your feedback and are designing a smaller main feature area for the top right hand section of the page.

We don't want to put people off with what some (like JonnyB) regard as "oversized advertising". That said, the new version will doubtless still be bigger than some would like it to be. One reason is that we will be regularly showing video clips on the homepage from the summer and the size of this "player" is fixed.

As I mentioned before, the idea is that this feature isn't simply a section displaying promotions for BBC programmes and services, rather one that shows off some of the best topical BBC content, whether it be video clips, picture galleries, news features or quizzes.

And we don't intend to stop making other improvements. Indeed, we've already drawn up plans taking us well into 2009.

The homepage team is embarking on a series of infrastructure changes. These may not be immediately apparent to users, but will lay the groundwork for a new generation of customisable services... oh, and make the page load faster.

world_service_widget.pngAs well as lining up a number of new widgets (or modules), we're also busy enhancing just about all the ones that are currently available. For example, the World Service widget will soon display foreign language news headlines.

As Richard Titus has mentioned, we also want non-BBC services on the page, enabling you to check webmail or get the latest updates from friends on social networking sites. But all of this requires new kit and we're still some months away from rolling this stuff out.

Speaking of which... a new Beta homepage will be launched next month which will give you a sneak preview of some things in the pipeline.

And for those of you who want to set more than one location for weather updates... we hear you. We are awaiting the new kit to get it sorted!

James Price is the editor of the BBC homepage.

Interesting Stuff 23.04.08

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 10:37 UK time, Wednesday, 23 April 2008

There's an interview with Anthony Rose about the BBC iPlayer in this week's Points Of View [1' 30" in].


The Independent describes the iPlayer as "the daddy of online broadcasting".

Robin Hamman has been working on a breaking news social media tool for journalists partly using the BBC News Breaking News RSS feed.

Benjamin Dwyer praises Radio 1's use of social media.

And Karen Loasby, who leads the BBC's Information Architecture team, reports back from the IA Summit.

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet Blog.

BBC Joins OpenID Foundation

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Jem Stone Jem Stone | 13:57 UK time, Tuesday, 22 April 2008

The announcement last week of Ashley's imminent departure provoked numerous "runners and riders"-type pieces in the media and end of term reports. Bob Eggington makes a play in the Guardian yesterday morning pleading for tighter controls on content standards and a reduction in the scope of BBC online's that would free up investment for "experimentation".

Mike Butcher, the editor of TechCrunch UK and a passionate reporter of the European startup scene, criticised the BBC from another angle. He threw down the gauntlet last week with a plea for the BBC to be more open with its data and argued that FM&T should provide a ecosystem of BBC feeds and APIs with which companies and individuals could innovate. His message seemed to be, in contrast to Eggington: focus on your data standards and everything else will follow. My colleagues from Backstage, FM&T for A&Mi and those sitting just over there on /programmes have all responded arguing that, even if we have a long way to go, we're are already stepping up to the plate.

So, adding to the noise, I'd like to make one further smaller announcement which suggests that the BBC's role is more than just as Eggington puts it; "a new content strategy".

This week the BBC has joined the OpenID Foundation.

People have been speculating about the BBC's attitude towards OpenID for a while. And getting identity right is key to our future plans - with that in mind, we are looking very seriously at how the increasing number of data portability technologies could and should work for the BBC.

openid_logo.pngOpenID, being a shared identity service, is part of that mix and is already starting to gain adoption amongst leading technology companies and the BBC is (I think!) the first large media company to join the likes of Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and IBM in the foundation. This means that we can share our future plans, show support and contribute to existing OpenID technical and marketing work groups.

However, at this stage, and wary of being named and shamed here, this doesn't mean that we are going to immediately be offering OpenIDs on or even promising to do so. We would want to make absolutely sure that this is right for users, is secure and can be implemented properly across all the BBC's many services.

However, joining the Foundation, which I am excited about, is a small step in that direction.

I thought that it's also worth reminding you of two other key bits of technical work which we need to complete first:

  1. Replacing our platform: A lot of the the more substantial changes to are dependent on the infrastructure of our website, which is going through a substantial upgrade. Those of you going to XTECH can hear directly from Brendan Quinn and Ben Smith about how we are replacing our existing stack with "a data-driven, RESTful service oriented, platform independent architecture".
  2. Replacing our identity platform [enough platforms - ed]: If you wish to log in across, then we use what we internally call SSO (Single Sign On). This ageing system pretty much handles authentication (we know who you are) - but little else. More on this on this blog very soon, but at the moment it's just not possible, even if we wanted it, to be OpenID-compliant.

Finally, I'm wary as well that, at the moment, 99.99% of internet users are completely unaware of OpenID. Yet we do know they increasingly they care about safety, trust, ownership of data, and simply and easily sharing information across services.

All this will take some hard work, but I'd like to see us have a bigger role in learning from and contributing to the substantial progress that others have already made.

Look out for further announcements.

Jem Stone is Portfolio Executive for BBC FM&T's social media group.

Blogs Getting Better ...Finally

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Jem Stone Jem Stone | 17:50 UK time, Thursday, 17 April 2008


The upgrade to our blogs platform is a bit like the infamous Guns N' Roses album Chinese Democracy. It's a subject frequently discussed around here but, given the requests for patience and "bearing with us", I'd understand if you'd be struggling to believe that it might ever happen.

Yet now, seeing a couple of bleary-eyed members of my team finish what has been the equivalent of a BBC Election Night shift and looking around our blogs themselves, I'm relieved to say that the first phase of our improvements is substantially in place.

A lot of the work in this first phase has been behind the scenes: ideally, you shouldn't really notice many changes this afternoon (apart from one key difference - see below), but we're relieved that the migration of over 12,000 blog posts, nearly a million comments and hundreds of different templates has gone reasonably smoothly. Once we're sure that the system is stable and bedded down, we'll be introducing more substantial changes to look and feel and functionality.

For the moment, the two key changes that you will notice are:

(1) A new registration based comments system

This uses the existing signon system across the BBC, so Message Board or Have Your Say users will be able to login as normal.

We thought hard about introducing what some call a "barrier to entry" for leaving comments but, to be honest, we'd had enough of 502 errors and the system seizing up with spam attacks. There are obviously other solutions ("captchas"; upgrades; the installation itself) - but registration, being people-based, is now in place for many other high-profile blogs (as Giles Wilson mentions at The Editors Blog) and is far more useful in helping us to manage the communities well.

We also believe that the ability to comment directly on is now for some of our blogs less important, given the increasing ease with which users can refer, bookmark and/or blog themselves, away from

(2) A more stable platform

We've upgraded from the frankly archaic Movable Type 3.2 to its newer version MT 4.1. Many commenters have asked about why we've plumped for this particular piece of software (from Six Apart) over and above other options such as WordPress or an internal solution. It was a tough call, which we only confirmed after extensive tests and evaluation in partnership with the team at Headshift, who we have worked with closely on this project.

Anyway, these are still early days and we have a growing bug list, so I'd really appreciate anything you might spot that is out of the ordinary - and obviously, I'll be monitoring feedback wherever you might leave it.

Two final things. Hopefully, you can now leave comments with ease - but, most importantly: spammers are the scum of the earth. I curse you all.

Jem Stone is the Portfolio Executive for BBC FM&T's social media group.

Interesting Stuff 17.04.08

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 10:34 UK time, Thursday, 17 April 2008

techcrunch logoMike Butcher's plea in TechCrunch for the BBC to open up more of its data and tools has started a lively conversation. Matt Cashmore of BBC Backstage has commented in this post.

Tom Scott of the BBC's Audio & Music Interactive team has also responded at length. A quote from Tom:

As Michael recently presented at the Semantic Camp our plans are to join programmes, music, events, users and topics. All available on the web, for ever, for people to explore and open for machines to process.

It's also worth a look at Ashley Highfield's post from last year, Open Standards.

Meanwhile, Neil Berkett of Virgin Media's comments in this article that net neutrality was "a load of bollocks" seem to have stirred up a campaign against him. In MediaGuardian today he's quoted as saying that his comments were "flippant" but that he doesn't regret opening up the debate.

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet Blog.

No Comment

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 15:21 UK time, Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Jem Stone blogged a while ago about the work being done to improve the BBC's blogs.

As a part of this, from 1800 this evening (UK time), some essential maintenance will be carried out to all of the blogs.

As a result, you won't be able to leave any comments on blog posts from that time until early Thursday morning.

This isn't censorship; rather, it's to provide you (we hope) with a better service (at last!).

So, if you've got anything to say, say it by six o'clock today!

Jem will post an update tomorrow.

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet Blog.

Blog On Blogging

Jeremy Hillman Jeremy Hillman | 10:38 UK time, Wednesday, 16 April 2008

peston_davis.pngWe do a lot of blogging these days in the Business & Economics unit. Peston's Picks, Evanomics, now replaced by our new Economics Editor Stephanie Flanders (we'll need a catchy name for her new blog if you have any ideas, please...).

But our technology correspondent and multi-media blogger Rory Cellan-Jones has reminded us that the act of blogging wasn't, and still isn't, entirely uncontroversial, even here at the BBC. This is his blog on blogging...

Read more and comment at the BBC News Editors Blog. Jeremy Hillman is editor, Business & Economics Unit.

Interesting Stuff 15.04.08

Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 11:04 UK time, Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Jemima Kiss has the runners and riders to replace Ashley Highfield, with comment at the Guardian's PDA blog and BBC Backstage.

Away from the gossip, Neil Berkett of Virgin Media has written a forthright article about ISPs and broadband costs for the Royal Television Society's Television magazine. The article is not available online, but it's set off some very heated and (I warn you) tasteless comment at Torrent Freak blog.

Aqute Research asks an unusual question: Why Should The BBC Help UK Start Ups?.

Social Reporter blogs about the costs of the BBC's Action Network.

Matt Deegan on Radio 1's use of Facebook events.

And in Miami, Karen Loasby of the FM&T Information Architecture team is speaking at the Information Architecture Summit. Martin Belam blogs it.

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet Blog.

BBC iPlayer On PlayStation 3? Not Yet

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Anthony Rose Anthony Rose | 12:33 UK time, Monday, 14 April 2008

I was interested to read that someone has managed to make BBC iPlayer work on the PS3 by pretending that it's a Wii.

iplayer_spoof_wiiplayer.jpgAs you know, our aim is to make BBC iPlayer available on a broad range of devices. We'd love to be on every popular device tomorrow, including the PS3, and it was on our roadmap. However, the reality is that we only have finite developer resources, and we need to divide our development time between expanding the platforms iPlayer is available on versus all the other cool things that we're working on (better video quality, personalisation, new site features, etc).

For each new device that we plan to support, we look at both a short and long term strategy, starting with encoding our content in a suitable format for browser-enabled devices that can view the iPlayer site, and moving in the longer term to possible customised versions of the site or even full custom applications for that device.

So, while I'm impressed that someone has done this, this doesn't mean that it's the best possible iPlayer proposition for that console. We're investigating the optimal video profile and browser proposition to enable us to officially make iPlayer available on PS3 in due course.

By the way, if the person who created the ps3iplayer port is looking for a job at the BBC, (s)he's welcome to contact me ;-)

Anthony Rose is Head of Digital Media Technology, Future Media & Technology. Image by Martin Belam.

Ashley Highfield To Lead "Kangaroo"

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 11:00 UK time, Monday, 14 April 2008

kangaroo_175.pngAshley Highfield is leaving BBC Future Media and Technology to lead Project Kangaroo.

Ashley is in Las Vegas for an event so will probably be asleep now, but I hope to have a post from him as soon as possible.

In the meantime, here's the press release explaining more. I'll be putting any reaction from blogs in our stream.

Here is the text of the email sent by the BBC's Director General Mark Thompson to all BBC staff today:

Dear All,
I am delighted to tell you that Ashley Highfield, Director of Future Media & Technology, is to become CEO of Kangaroo, the video-on-demand joint venture between BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4.
I'm sure you will join me in congratulating Ashley in taking up this fantastic opportunity to oversee the launch of an exciting new venture which is an important part of BBC Worldwide’s future commercial plans.
At the same time, I'd like to express my thanks to him for all the great work that he has done since he joined the BBC in 2000. He has been pivotal in transforming the BBC for the digital age and a champion on the Executive Board for investment in technology. As a result of his leadership, the BBC is being re-engineered and successfully positioned to take on the enormous challenges of the future.
Most crucially, he has overseen the phenomenally successful BBC iPlayer, which received 42 million programme requests in its first three months.
Under Ashley’s leadership, has also experienced a huge growth in popularity. It is now ranked as the third most popular website in the UK, and on average is visited by 20 million people a week. He is also responsible for our mobile services, Information & Archives and the award winning BBCi, the BBC's digital interactive TV service - as well as overseeing the critical role of Research & Development at Kingswood Warren and the start of the roll-out of the Digital Media Initiative.
I will be announcing Ashley's leaving date in due course and we will shortly start the process to select and appoint his successor.
All the best,
Mark Thompson.

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet Blog.

Over The Air: Mobile Going Mainstream

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Matthew Postgate Matthew Postgate | 14:05 UK time, Thursday, 10 April 2008

So, as many of you will be aware, we supported the Over The Air festival on Friday and Saturday. It was a great event and I'm really pleased that we were able to be involved.

overtheair_badge.pngFor the BBC, supporting this type of event is really important to what we are trying to achieve on mobile. We wanted to help to create an environment where developers and designers who are passionate about mobile could exchange ideas. I think that - as grassroots development is beginning to scale and as the ideas it generates emerge - we will see some of the fragmentation that has dogged mobile for so long also begin to disappear. One of the most encouraging aspects for me was the tangible sense that mobile is happening right now, in front of us.

I gave a presentation at the beginning of the event which covered the "where we've been, where we are and where we are going" with mobile at the BBC. One of the themes I spoke about is the evolution of our mobile browser site. I think that our mobile site is great but I also think that it's in the process of fundamentally changing.

Increasingly, we need to understand how it relates to the fixed line version of Bringing the web together is one of the real challenges that "mobile" becoming mainstream presents all of us, whether you maintain mobile versions of your website or not.

Audiences who are increasingly accessing the web on portable devices naturally have expectations that services will work and relate to the experiences they have become used to on their computers. The developers that were at OTA and the ideas they are coming up with are also increasingly creating an expectation that the mobile web will offer even more: an experience that plays to the strength of the medium, of an integration with other platforms that is more sophisticated than just straight repurposing.

The talks and the prototypes that were developed over the two days hinted at the opportunities being created. It was all stimulating but three of the category winners in particular pointed towards this future.

Read the rest of this entry

"Hidden Costs Of Watching TV Online": My Response In The Telegraph

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Ashley Highfield | 09:00 UK time, Thursday, 10 April 2008

I've read all the comments on my post, and am delighted that so much thought and time has already clearly been put into this debate.

telegraph_logo.pngAs this latest debate was sparked off by a piece in the Daily Telegraph, they've let me do an article, which appears in today's paper - you can read it here.

In spite of the The Register's somewhat anti-BBC stance on this issue, its readership seems to have a more balanced set of views that you might want to scroll through here.

All I want to say now is that we actually have a very constructive relationship with the ISPs. We don't think that we should pay for their content distribution costs, but that difference of opinion does not mean we don't work together. We do, and although actually a relatively small player in the internet landscape (about 2% share of time spent online goes to, 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.

Ashley Highfield is Director, BBC Future Media & Technology.

BBC iPlayer On Wii

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Anthony Rose Anthony Rose | 13:20 UK time, Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Last month, we made BBC iPlayer available on Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch devices, the first of many mobile platforms that we hope to support.

The theme for this month's iPlayer release is "iPlayer in the living room" - i.e., watching BBC on-demand programmes on your big-screen television set.

Today, most people watch iPlayer programmes on their computer. That's great - you can watch your favourite BBC programmes curled up in bed with your notebook PC, or on your study desk while you check your email, or (if you downloaded our programmes) on the plane or away abroad on holiday.

But have you tried hooking up your computer to your TV set?

s-video.jpgiPlayer programmes, particularly downloaded programmes, look great on a TV. The video quality is usually even better when iPlayer programmes are played back on a TV than on your computer screen. Most newish computers, particularly notebook computers, have an S-video output, which, with a suitable S-video to SCART cable, can connect to most modern TV sets. If you have an LCD or plasma TV, chances are that it will have a Video Graphics Array input which will give even better picture quality when connected to the VGA output of your notebook PC. (N.B. Picture of S-Video output courtsey of yum9me on Flickr.)

If you have a Nintendo Wii, it's already connected to your TV, and now you can play iPlayer programmes directly on your Wii.

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BBC iPlayer & ISPs On Today

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 09:59 UK time, Wednesday, 9 April 2008

today_logo.pngIf you missed the item on this morning's Today programme about the BBCiPlayer, broadband and internet service providers, you can listen again here. [NB: link amended 10th April to point to Today's archive.]

You can read Ashley's original blog post here. The comments are interesting, too.

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet Blog.

A More Helpful Help Site

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Ian Hunter | 12:37 UK time, Tuesday, 8 April 2008

bbc_help.pngLast week, we launched a new version of the BBC Help site. Previously, it was just a collection of bits of technical advice about using, and the most used section by far was about how to make a BBC page your homepage.

The new site draws on the wealth of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and other information that exists across and tries to guide people more effectively towards the area most likely to actually help them. Sections include accessibility, radio, BBC iPlayer and mobile. I think we've made it look a lot nicer, too.

This launch is part of a bigger project looking at how we can improve the way that we interact with our audience. Currently we get over 40,000 emails a month from users, and those are just the ones that we can count because they come through the "official" central route. There are many other routes which we don't record.

Because of the way the website evolved - bit by bit, with lots of small teams working on specific parts of the website - there are now over a hundred different routes on for sending feedback. This means that the way we deal with feedback can be inconsistent and, in the worst case, a "contact us" button can be left open when the programme team has moved on.

newswatch_ian_hunter.jpgThis has led to some understandable grumbling and the BBC Trust has asked us to improve things. Ray Snoddy recently tackled me on this on Newswatch, too.

Part of the solution is for us to agree some common standards for how feedback should be handled. We're writing some advice for teams at the moment, and will be publishing these as part of the New Media Guidelines later this year, so that our users know will know what to expect, too.

Another part of the solution is to improve the information that we provide on and make it easier to find. A huge proportion of those 40,000 emails (not to mention the ones that never get reported centrally) ask questions about our programmes or services. And the money we spend answering them comes out of the budget we have to spend on the programmes and services themselves. Feedback is valued and responding to it is an important part of the service we provide, but we do want to make is easier for people to find things for themselves. If we can provide better information on (through sites such as BBC Programmes), and help users to find it (through searchable and rateable FAQs like those on the BBC iPlayer help pages), more people will be able to answer their own questions without having to send us an email.

The new Help site is another step on this journey. Any feedback is welcome!

Ian Hunter is Managing Editor, Internet, BBC Future Media and Technology

Does Size Matter?

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Ashley Highfield | 13:56 UK time, Monday, 7 April 2008

mobile_content175.jpgThe launch of BBC iPlayer onto the iPhone, and the relaunch of our mobile services more generally, raises some critical questions that remain unanswered, such as:

"do people want to consume a lot of information on a 3"x2" screen?".

If TV is to become mobile, or people are to stop buying the morning newspaper (or paperbacks) to read on the train and use the wireless internet instead, then must we believe that the next generation of mobile phones/MP3 players will become a usable device for consuming half an hour plus of media? The jury is out on this one.

It may be an issue less of technology and more of biology: is the screen of an easily pocketable device too small to comfortably stare at for an hour-long commute? The larger-screened laptop, with its high cost, low battery life, steal/breakability, and screen glare is probably not the mass market solution either. Is there a market for a large screen, cheap, reliable, non-eye-straining device?

Elonex thinks so, and is the latest manufacturer to enter the market with their £99 wifi-connected laptop. (Their secret to low-price success? They're betting on open source software: the machine runs Linux). Amazon also thinks there is a market between iTouch and a full-blown laptop, with the book-reader Kindle apparently being the first step towards a more functionally rich (e.g. open internet access) device. And Sony too is soon to be relaunching its eBook (early incarnations of e-books have signally failed to inspire the blogosphere, for example this from Cory Doctorow).

Making the right call here, and correctly forecasting demand for mobile-IP rich media, may well be the difference between success and failure for UK media companies, especially the print industry. (And just to illustrate how complex this market is, in Japan, downloads of books to standard mobile screens has actually been quite a success, as has TV to mobile in Korea.)

Recently, Guardian MD Tim Brooks kindly came along to BBC Future Media & Technology (FM&T) Towers over here to talk to our senior management group about the challenges we all face in the media industry. He stated that as long as we stuck to our guns - providing original, distinctive, quality (and in our case impartial) news, education and entertainment - we would survive the audience shifts away from newspapers and TV to the internet.

Newspaper circulation has been falling for years (and with it, advertising revenues), but the decline appears to be levelling out. Clearly, the advantages of the print newspaper when on the move, (whether in the house or on the train) are key. The advantages of the newspaper over trying to obtain the same information over your Nokia N95 are obvious. Could the Elonex/Open-Kindle change this?

We have seen the false dawn of mass media consumption on mobile devices a number of times. Last year, I made a speech where I forsaw that all the factors that would enable mobile to start being a viable data provider were starting to come into alignment. More recently, our News FM&T head Nic Newman has echoed these sentiments.

Vodaphone CEO Arun Sarin declared recently: "If we have to look at the whole chain of things that have to be right before mobile internet takes off, I feel we are there".

And Vodafone should know what it's talking about, sitting on £2bn of annual data revenues. Yet this growth is not for the most part coming from mobile phones. Data is still a tiny part of the volume going over the mobile phones, if you exclude SMS. What's driving mobile data is laptop computers with high-speed data cards (HSPA) being used predominantly for work emails. 3UK data "dongles" for laptops have been flying off the shelves faster than iPhones.

But if the tide is starting to turn to mobile-IP, what devices will win? Mobile phone, e-readers, £100 Linux laptops, or full blown notebooks?

For the BBC, already the number one provider of content to mobile devices in the UK, what is our role in helping to drive the market for those devices that are open, inexpensive, and can help provide a quality experience and start a new relationship with audiences who may not consume that much of our output through traditional means?

As the founders of the BBC Micro gathered two weeks ago to mark the immensely positive impact this machine had on kickstarting the home computer revolution 26 years ago, I wonder whether there is a similar role we could play now?

Ashley Highfield is Director, BBC Future Media & Technology.

Pic Of The Day: Over The Air

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Ian Forrester Ian Forrester | 11:27 UK time, Monday, 7 April 2008


overtheair_badge.pngThis is an ten year old in a lightsaber fight with two adults live on stage at the Over The Air mobile development event [as mentioned previously]. All of them are armed with nothing more than Nokia N95s which are working like Wii controllers.

There's more and a roundup of the feedback in the latest post on the BBC Backstage blog.

Ian Forrester is Senior Producer, FM&T Projects. Photo by Christian Scholz.

Pic Of The Day: Installfest Benchmarking

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Nick Reynolds Nick Reynolds | 10:26 UK time, Friday, 4 April 2008


I expect some of you are wondering when Ashley is going to share his experiences with Ubuntu (see this previous Pic of the Day and post from George Wright).

Rest assured that he tells me he has started writing a post.

In the meantime, to whet your appetite this photo shows him, in his words: "benchmarking four operating systems simultaneously! (five if you include my Blackberry)".

Nick Reynolds is editor, BBC Internet Blog.

"Hidden Costs" Of Watching TV Online?

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Ashley Highfield | 12:57 UK time, Wednesday, 2 April 2008

According to The Daily Telegraph,

Britain's broadband usage has changed beyond recognition in a matter of months. Since Christmas Day - when the BBC launched its online catch-up service, the iPlayer - a trend towards watching TV on the web has grown enormously.

(A bit of theatrical licence can be granted: Britain's broadband usage has not in fact changed beyond recognition, but perhaps the expectations of broadband users have.)

A diverse number of players, from Channel 4 to MSN to Virgin Broadband have gone on record to say that this is a good thing: all on-demand TV boats are rising on the BBC iPlayer tide.

But many commentators have pointed out that some Internet Service Providers who offer "unlimited broadband" can start to charge their customers extra after only a few TV programmes have been accessed.

What's to be done?

The Telegraph suggested that users stream content rather than download to save money. We don't think this makes any difference.

the_passion.pngAs an aside, the BBC iPlayer service offers both streaming and downloading, and will continue to do so. Most programmes have a ratio of around eight streams for every download, but high-end drama, such as The Passion had over a quarter of its iPlayer consumption via the P2P download service. To reiterate, the BBC iPlayer is not, as the Telegraph keeps saying, exclusively a peer-to-peer download service.

So, if streaming rather than downloading is not the answer for users to reduce their chances of exceeding their monthly cap and ending up with an additional bill, what is?

How about a Broadband Charter? Here are nineteen potential actions that could help bring clarity to this issue, enable audiences to know what they're paying for, and help ISPs move the broadband market forward (in no particular order):

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More Penguins

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Paul Almond | 09:53 UK time, Wednesday, 2 April 2008

It's not often that you get to work with animals - especially penguins, and particularly penguins that can fly. But that's what we've been doing for the last two weeks as part of an April Fools' Day campaign for BBC iPlayer. Well, not really... But we have become quite attached to them, however virtual they may be.

To support a 90 second promotional trail on BBC iPlayer, we invented a fictitious new series, Miracles Of Evolution, in which film-maker and writer Terry Jones follows in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and his Voyage of the Beagle in 1831 – "a voyage which was ultimately to revolutionise the natural sciences with the publication of On The Origin Of The Species".

The series would show how certain species have evolved disproportionately quickly over millions of years. The first episode "presents spectacular footage, which has never been caught on camera before, of a unique colony of Adelie Penguins as they fly thousands of miles across the frozen wasteland of Antarctica to the Amazon Rainforest".

Terry Jones was happy to endorse our story, in which he enthused:

When we first discovered them, we could hardly believe our eyes. We'd been watching them and filming them for days, without a hint of what was to come. But then the weather took a turn for the worse. It was quite amazing. As they say, the best stories are the true ones...

We partnered with the Mirror and the Telegraph to play along and run a story on their news pages about this momentous discovery, and it was the most viewed story on their respective websites (where readers could also watch the trail itself).

We did the same with the BBC’s Breakfast. Purely coincidentally, Sir David Attenborough was a guest on the programme; he played along, suggesting that this remarkable colony "had survived from an earlier phase perhaps because they are flying to find food". Here's the clip from YouTube:

The story has been picked up widely, alongside other stories such as Nicolas Sarkozy’s height and Alistair Darling playing the lottery, from CNN to Reuters saying that it "topped a rich offering of spoofs". Also check out Russia’s Channel 1.

We made the trail available on the iPlayer homepage, which also featured, from midday, a short film showing how it had been made. Breakfast returned to the subject this morning, with Tim Davie, the BBC's Director of Marketing & Communications in the studio.

The campaign belongs to a long tradition of April Fools at the BBC including the best known of these, thought to be TV's first: the Panorama programme, presented by Richard Dimbleby no less, which featured a family in Ticino in Switzerland as they carried out their annual spaghetti harvest.

In 1975, David Attenborough announced the discovery on BBC Radio 3 of a new species of night-time singing tree mice known as Musendrophilus. In 1999, the Today programme announced that God Save The Queen was to be replaced by a Euro Anthem sung in German.

Alongside television and radio, we launched a complementary, integrated viral campaign online, to reach the widest audience possible. By seeding the promotional trail in distribution networks, forums and video websites, our hope was that audiences would discover it wherever they are, share it, and embed it on their websites and blogs.

Early indications are that there were approximately 350,000 views of the trail on the iPlayer website yesterday, and nearly 200,000 on YouTube, and it's rising all the time. Some of the comment prompted the thought that April 1st offers limitless potential for promotional opportunities, so watch out for a profusion next year.

Paul Almond is Head of Communications for Future Media & Digital, BBC Marketing, Communications & Audiences.

News and Sports Website Refresh: Your Comments

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Julia Whitney | 11:27 UK time, Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Yesterday, we launched a visual refresh of the BBC News and BBC Sport web sites, which follows on closely from the launch of embedded audio and video (see John O' Donovan's previous post) and is the latest phase in an ongoing process of iteration.

Our aspirations for this phase can be boiled down to this simple design goal:

we wanted a fresher, more modern and open look that makes better use of both horizontal space and photos.

In response to Steve Herrmann's and Ben Gallop's posts about the refresh, we had almost 1,000 comments by late last night.

There's a lot of useful detailed feedback that our technical teams are sifting through (thanks!) and several themes about the design have emerged:

Site widening

Many of you are happy that we're now making better use of available horizontal space, but many have written (like Gareth Jones) that you now have to scroll horizontally to see the whole page.

We thought long and hard about the right moment to move to a new width. Go too early and we risked leaving too many people behind. Wait too long and we have an increasingly dissatisfying experience for a growing majority of users.

Our conviction that we'd reached the tipping point was borne out by the increasing amount of feedback we'd had from you about the old site not making good use of the horizontal screen real estate.

As Steve Herrmann and Ben Gallop have both mentioned, 95% of you have your screen resolution set to 1024 pixels wide or wider. And that number is growing every year.

As Richard Titus mentioned in his most recent post, this new width, which is part of the new pan-BBC language we'll be rolling out onto all of the BBC's new and redesigned sites, is still conservative compared to sites like Yahoo!, MSN, CNN and Sky.

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Coyopa Takes Shape

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James Cridland James Cridland | 10:25 UK time, Tuesday, 1 April 2008

A few weeks back, I posted a few messages here about the work we're doing to change the way we're streaming radio. We're calling the technical work "Project Coyopa", after the Mayan god of thunderous noises. (No, I didn't name it).

Just to keep you abreast of the work we're doing: here's a picture of one half of the Coyopa system, currently in testing somewhere in the UK.


Read more and comment at the BBC Radio Labs blog.

James Cridland is Head of Future Media & Technology, BBC Audio & Music Interactive

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