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6 September 2004

Auntie’s hopeless online dream

The Beeb should stick to making great programmes and leave the geeky stuff to others

By Kathryn Corrick

Ashley Highfield, the BBC’s director of new media, recently told the Guardian that the BBC was considering launching a low-cost PC terminal with bundled broadband access.

Outside of the new media press his comments went almost unnoticed, but such plans could radically change both the commercial market and how the UK public consumes digital media.

Highfield’s ambition is to use the BBC to bridge the “digital divide” between those who have web access and those who do not. The BBC’s vision, he has said, is of “a 100 per cent digital Britain, with everyone connected”.

Highfield imagines a future of ambient television (“to be watched with half your attention span, or listened to, perhaps while you do something else”), enhanced audio (digital radio with text) and personal video recorders (watch programmes when you want to, not when the sche- dule dictates).

Marvellous. Yet at a time when the BBC is trying to cut £2bn from running costs and is being accused by commercial operators of having an adverse impact on the market, such ambitions to eliminate effective competition across areas of online content look questionable. Particularly as the BBC’s charter is due for renewal in 2006.

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Highfield justifies the move into this new area by reference to previous BBC market interventions in both home computing and digital television. The launch of Freeview is fresh in people’s minds, and introduced UK viewers to multichannel, interactive television for the first time.

Yet many, including Highfield, may have forgotten Beeb Ventures, launched at the peak of the internet boom in 1999. It aimed to capitalise commercially on the BBC’s programme brands through One of many projects included, providing internet access and an e-mail account. The move predictably prompted criticism from other internet service providers (ISPs). Beeb Ventures folded in 2002; now links only to BBC Shop but, against the odds, you can still have an internet and e-mail account.

The BBC first dipped its toe in digital waters with the launch of its Computer Literacy Project, which sought to increase public awareness of computers, in 1980. The pocket calculator was still seen as revolutionary, the government was encouraging everyone to buy British and the family car of choice was the Austin Allegro. How, the BBC asked, was it to educate people about computers, when it was almost impossible to buy one for home use?

A suitable home computer was required to complement the accompanying tele-vision series and it had to be made in Britain (a government requirement). So the corporation drew up its specification for such a computer and invited proposals. Acorn Computers of Cambridge had the Proton under development, which caught the BBC’s eye. The BBC A was born in late 1981. The BBC B followed in early 1982.

The BBC A cost £235; the BBC B £335. An additional £100 bought a box that could pick up teletext and also download software from Ceefax. Most of us would see this now as akin to the internet, and yet it was a decade later that Tim Berners-Lee founded the Worldwide Web.

The government approved the BBC micros for British schools. The Department of Industry was heavily involved in promoting them. Together with BBC Enterprise, it saw it as a money-making opportunity.

For a while, the BBC and the UK led the field in home and micro-computing. The BBC micros were well ahead of their time in terms of quality and price. In addition, the technology underpinning the computers was at the cutting edge.

Yet in truly innovative but often incompetent British fashion, the BBC and Acorn were unable to build upon their market lead. Interviewed by the Independent, Hermann Hauser of Acorn Computers said that if the firm had licensed its operating system (Mos/Basic) to other companies in the early 1980s, Acorn would have had a monopoly of the microcomputer market even today. Hauser also claimed that Bill Gates visited, trying to sell Acorn the Dos operating system, but told him that the Acorn OS was better.

At first, there were few similar products on the market. However, before long others came along. BBC and Acorn failed to predict that computer games and software would drive the development of home computing, and did not develop much software themselves. The BBC Master 128 was the last of the breed, after which the BBC and Acorn parted company.

Despite its success at innovation, the BBC seems to have learned little from the incredible rise and horrible fall of the BBC micro, and even less from Beeb Ventures. Its involvement with implementing government policy, such as computer literacy and now broadband, proves beneficial in the short term for politicians (all those wonderful statistics) but not so good for the corporation in the long term.

If the BBC is to introduce its own PC with broadband access, it needs to provide long-term commitment. Both the PC and broadband markets are incredibly competitive and developments occur rapidly – even more so than in the days of the micro. There are more than 150 ISPs in the UK providing broadband services, and numerous companies aiming to provide cheaper computers with internet access. If the BBC wishes to bridge the digital divide (at the same time as cutting billions from its budget), it might be better to stick to what it does best: providing the excellent content that makes people buy computers, broadband, digital radio or television.

Kathryn Corrick is online manager for the New Statesman