BBC iPhone apps? I think there’s a better way

Last month the BBC announced that it would launch a limited number of mobile app, starting with News and Sport  and then possibly an iPlayer app. Unsurprisingly the NPA promptly complained that the BBC would “damage the nascent market“, and now the BBC Trust as said that it wants to review the plan and that means a delay.

Well I don’t know about whether such a move by the BBC would have an impact on the market or not (although I agree with Martin, I think it was inevitable that the Trust has would review the plans), but I do think the BBC could tackle the problem in a different, more open way.

BBC News on mobile

There’s a lot of hype and hyperbole around mobile apps – and in some ways you can understand why, lots are downloaded and some folks are making money from them but I’m not so sure it’s going to last. I suspect that mobile apps are successful for a few reasons:

  1. They are hooked into a big marketing push. Apple et al. are all publicising their stores on your handset on the telly, on posters and in papers.
  2. The app stores are targeted and people know where to look, the Web could be The Store (as it’s been for other things) but that’s not how regular folks appear to see software nor do they want to dig about for what to install.
  3. The Web (mostly) only works when you’re online, apps (mostly) work offline too.
  4. Some stuff can only be built as a native app (rather than via the web), probably.

But as phones expose more of their API to the browser, as HTML 5 with its support for offline browsing and other goodies becomes adopted and, as libraries and support become available so the technical and user experience barriers start to become less relevant — it may once again be universally seen as sensible to develop web apps. Of course either the fear of being locked in or being locked out of the relationship with their customer might kick companies along a bit too.

So in the near future we should be able to build web apps every bit as good as mobile apps? Yes, but I would go further: for most of the things the BBC wants to do, the technology is already good enough. And with a web focused mind set you can start to invest in the sorts of things you can only do server side — just look at the sorts of things Google are building: word processors, voice communications, email clients, image recognition, maps etc. I think it’s better to embrace the future than play catch-up with the near past.

But what if I’m wrong and mobile apps are the future of content delivery? Well the BBC could still take a different approach – one where it licensed its content in such a way that others could build apps with its content. Of course, unless things changed, the app would need to be non-commercial and the use of the BBC logo and brand would be protected. Of course the non-commercial aspect might be reviewed under certain circumstances — indeed the BBC already licenses content to third parties both outside and inside the UK via its commercial arm BBC Worldwide, why not online? Although I can’t see any circumstance under which the BBC would allow use of its brand and logo since this is central to protecting its reputation, to avoid this sort of thing.

If the BBC did license its content in such as way as to allow others to build stuff then we might see all sorts of interesting innovation on all sorts of different devices and not just mobiles. Perhaps I’m missing something but I don’t see why the BBC needs to control the entire distribution chain, from encoding to eye balls, when distributing content over IP but not when broadcasting to your TV or radio. The BBC doesn’t make its own televisions nor radios instead it lets the market manage that bit, why not encourage the same sort of thing on the web?

Comments

5 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Mo,

    For what (little) it’s worth, the “mobile apps” section of my in-draft response to the strategy review says pretty much this — make the APIs and feeds available, and come up with a set of terms which let people build their own “BBC News” apps in some form or another.

    I do think there needs to be a way in which people can use the BBC branding for applications, even if there’s a manual approval/sign-off process involved. Perhaps I’m wrong about that.

    What I’m not sure about is why BBC News isn’t leveraging HTML5’s capabilities to aggressively cache content for offline use and build a “BBC News webapp”, which conceivably could support a multitude of platforms from the get-go.

  2. Interesting Tom. I still think browser/OS integration on mobile devices has some way to go before you truly get that native feel. You also have the problem of polish. Native apps just look more polished. You can use 15mbs worth of assets to make an native app shine (and people like shine). To do this on a web app would be very difficult. I guess time will tell.

    • You’re of course quite right – but when you’re talking about a news service or a video on demand service i.e. where the content is so dominant do you need more polish than HTML etc. can provide? I’m not so sure.

      But if I’m wrong and folks want native web apps I would still rather the BBC support third party developers than build it themselves.

  3. Jerry Kramskoy,

    One question is how much mobile device feature access is required for innovative future BBC services? Local file system and location are obvious candidates, and are being standardised for Javascript access.

    The bigger question though is how much should end-users in the audience have to learn different interaction models?

    Given the future convergence between broadcast / mobile / fixed in the home, the audience will typically want access to whatever content suits the moment, on whatever device is convenient for the user’s situation at that time, and without regard to how the content is distributed technology-wise (3G, WiFi, broadcast). Apps and future services need discussing in this broader context, I believe.

    • Jerry, I think there are a few different things in here: you’re quite right that the mode of distribution shouldn’t make a difference and indeed that’s why the Internet was architected in the way it was (i.e. as a series of layers). But I’m not sure that that therefore means that there should be one interaction model (if that’s what you’re suggesting) – different classes of device (mobile, TV etc.) require different modes of interaction.

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