Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 19 July 2010

BBC News iPad app not available in the UK - unjustifiable

Recently I have been trying to find a good general news app for my shiny new iPad. There are a few out there but what I really wanted was something that provides content of the quality of the BBC News website in an iPad friendly form. Unfortunately I could not find a BBC News iPad app when I looked.

Imagine my bemusement then when I discovered today that there actually is such an app and it has been (unsurprisingly) downloaded over a million times globally but that it is not available in the UK. Apparently the BBC Trust is worried that it might hurt the domestic commercial media market.

This is surely unjustifiable. It is the BBC. That first B stands for British. How can it be right that the rest of the world has a nice application to get BBC news content on the premier tablet computer platform and yet in the country where the license fee is levied that pays for the gathering of this content we are denied it?

Why does this same rule not apply to the BBC website for example? Surely that competes with things like subscriptions for The Times online and the Financial Times' paid for digital offering?

In my view, either the BBC releases this app in the UK, or it withdraws it altogether. It is totally unacceptable for the rest of the world to have access to this whilst we in Britain do not.


Martin Belam said...

Couldn't disagree more! What would have been totally unacceptable would be for the BBC domestically to wade into the iTunes app store without there being a full market impact test on the result of a new, permanent area of activity from the BBC in a nascent commercial market for news...

Andrew Hickey said...

What Mark B said. The BBC can *sell* content abroad to help offset costs of *free* content here. Not only that, but providing a specialised application that would only work on one expensive proprietary platform would rather go against its remit to provide equally for all license-payers.

Mark Thompson said...

Martin - I just find it bizarre that they can release it across the world but not in the country where the BBC is based and where the content is gathered. Apps are now a standard, accepted way for people to access content. I really do not see a major difference between an app and a website, other than ease of use given it is designed for the device. If they are not going to release it in the UK, how can they justify releasing it across the rest of the world?

Andrew - I have no problem with the BBC selling content abroad. That is perfectly sensible and as you rightly point out a way to offset costs here. But at risk of sounding like a broken record to release something abroad that is not available here in this way is bizarre.

Your point about the specialised platform is a fair one but it equally applies to the website (not all have internet access/computers) and iPlayer (not all have broadband). Where do we draw the line?

Andrew Hickey said...

I think it perfectly reasonable to draw the line at the BBC not releasing - in the UK - anything that requires equipment from *a specific company* to run. One can access the website on any computer, made by any manufacturer, running any operating system, be that a desktop running OpenSolaris, a mobile device running Windows CE or whatever.

The iPlayer I actually think should be opened more - I know a few people who can't use the iPlayer despite *having* broadband, because they have computers with non-x86 chips or are running an OS that isn't one of the Big Three (Windows, MacOS or GNU/Linux), and who argue, quite rightly, that it shouldn't be tied to the proprietary and exclusionary Adobe Flash.

Were it possible to create an 'app' that runs equally on multiple platforms - iPad, Android or whatever - then there'd be no objection. Unfortunately Apple's TOS forbid that.

So what you're asking for is for the BBC to provide a greater level of support to one particular platform - the iPad - owned by one company. This would be the BBC giving the iPad a commercial advantage over its competitors, and as such would go against their charter...

Anonymous said...

Mistake in article.

licence fee != license fee

Mark Thompson said...

Andrew - But they've already created the app! They have taken the decision to provide it for the iPad. Just not to allow people in the UK to access it.

As for your cross-platform point I agree that it is better if possible to have something that works across different systems but of course the reality is that is not feasible at the moment. Apple have always locked down their systems and it so happens that the iPhone and iPad are the most popular devices in their class.

Your idea about not needing equipment from "a specific company" also sounds reasonable but again comes up against the problem of what happens in practice. What if Apple had a 60% market share for their device? What if it was 90%? How could that principle be maintained?

Andrew Hickey said...

But they're allowed to do what they like *outside the UK*. They can support any company they wish, engage in whatever commercial deals they want - that's how it works.

(The 'app' almost certainly isn't created by the BBC itself, but by BBC Worldwide, incidentally, the BBC's commercial arm which exists to exploit BBC intellectual property in other countries).

And the principle can be maintained quite simply by just *not* selling an 'app' that can only work on one device at all. That way it doesn't matter if Apple have 1% or 100% of the market.

Andrew Hickey said...

And note this from the FAQ:

"Is there advertising on the BBC News iPad app?

Yes. Because the BBC News iPhone app is a commercial activity outside the UK, it will include advertising. "

That's another very, *very* good reason not to have it available in the UK as it is. It would be against the terms of their charter (much as, I believe, making an iPad 'app' availabla *at all* would be) and would set a very bad precedent for allowing advertising on the BBC more widely...

Andrew Hickey said...

"Apple have always locked down their systems and it so happens that the iPhone and iPad are the most popular devices in their class."

That doesn't mean that the BBC should support their anti-competitive practices, though, does it?

On top of that, the iPhone isn't even close to most popular device in its class - at least in the US, which is the only statistic I could find. It comes third in 'smartphone' sales after Blackberry and Android devices.

The BBC should quite simply *NOT* be providing an extra competitive advantage to *ANY* company. To do that would be to go against the very purpose of its existence.

Jon Worth said...

Mark - this is the tip of a rather large iceberg...

The BBC takes a simplistic view - you're either a UK license fee payer, or you're somewhere else. Simple line drawn. Only it's more complicated than that.

Your example is not getting an iPad app. My examples are different versions of BBC News Online when I am in Belgium or the UK (although it is the same 'me'), not being able to access iPlayer outside the UK for TV content, and not being able to listen to football on Radio 5 unless I use a proxy server, taking me into a legal grey area.

Compare this to Radio 4 on Long Wave - you can't control where the signal goes, so Belgium, Netherlands and half of France get it anyway.

In short the BBC is very nationalistic and simplistic when it comes to anything UK vs. elsewhere. I would pay for an iPad app from the BBC, or pay to use iPlayer abroad (and remember there are 500000 UK passport holders living permanently outside the UK), but there is no way for this to be done currently.

In the end the only solution here is to look at some middle way, pay-as-you-go version of the license fee for these specialised types of content.

Mark Thompson said...

Andrew. regarding your 3 most recent points:

1) Yes they are allowed to do what they want outside the UK. Unfortunately, what they want in this case is to release an app for the iPad that simultaneously is not available in the UK. This looks very odd and does not feel like what the BBC is supposed to be about, disadvantaging its domestic audience.

2) Your point about the advertising is not really applicable. Yes the app has advertising but so does the BBC website when accessed from abroad. They could easily strip the advertising out for domestic use exactly as they do the website.

3) I come back to my previous point. Of course it is not for the BBC to promote anti-competitive practices but I do not think it is for them to make decisions about which platforms not to support to suit a specific agenda. I am not really sure what criteria they should use. You say the criteria should be only for systems that are not locked to a particular manufacturer. I am not so sure this is practicable as I have already outlined. However this is not what lies behind the decision anyway. Instead it is because of the perceived problems with distorting the private media market. I am also dubious about this. Not least because there is no news app as far as I can tell that is as good as what is available via the BBC to the rest of the world (admittedly only based on what I have read - I have not been able to use it for obvious reasons). Either way, I have seen what is available and I am clear that denying the UK access to the app has not (yet) resulted in amazing private sector offerings.

Andrew Hickey said...

As I said, though, it's not 'the BBC', it's BBC Worldwide doing it. BBC Worldwide *as a matter of course* release products outside the UK that aren't available within the UK for various reasons (as an example the Doctor Who Key To Time box set was available for several years in the US but not in the UK). That's what it *does*.

Selling the 'app' in the UK would require the involvement of the main BBC organisation. It's a totally different organisation, and has to obey different rules. You're right that the reason it's not been put out is because of complaints about 'skewing the market' (which doesn't invalidate the reasons I've given), but it still has to go through the BBC Trust's approval process because of that, and I don't see what's wrong with that.

Mo said...

In a nutshell: BBC Worldwide can do whatever it likes (ish), and the publicly-funded organisation reaps any profits it makes.

However, there's more to this than meets the eye.

First, the BBC (in the UK) was going to release the app, but the regulator (the BBC Trust) was forced to put that on hold as a result of a (spurious, IMO) complaint. The Trust essentially has no choice in this -- until the complaint is determined to be as spurious as many think it to be, then the app stays out of the UK iTunes Store.

Now, there's a wider issue here. The app doesn't actually do anything which a well-written webapp couldn't. Indeed, there's a guy attempting to build a clone of it in HTML/JS/CSS right now (although by virtue of cross-domain issues, not to mention funding and the like, it'd be easier for the BBC to do it than some web developer in his spare time). The bonus of developing a webapp is that it would also work on Android devices, not just those running iOS. It would also, not being an 'app', but a different view of, not be subject to the same scrutiny as the BBC News app is.

So, really, the question is less "why is the BBC not allowed to distribute the app in the UK?" (which does have a definite, if irritating answer) but "why is it an app in the first place?". Not too many people are asking that latter question, though, perhaps unsurprisingly.

Mo said...

Regarding advertising: the actual news articles themselves within the app are just tailored web pages, and will either show or not show advertising depending upon your location as per any other web pages on the BBC site.

(This isn't just conjecture, by the way - I do have the app).

Anonymous said...


The issues is less to do with the BBC and more to do with the fact that the rights aren't cleared for you to consume this stuff outside of the UK.

Could it be cleared? Absolutely. But at a cost that takes cash away from the majority of people who consume in the UK.

Nik said...

Mark Thompson said...


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