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BBC takes the Microsoft wooden dollar

BBC – Press Office – BBC and Microsoft sign memorandum of understanding

MOU in this case is tantamount to a ‘sales and marketing agreement’.

I read this announcement with some surprise and a shrug of inevitability. Quick disclosure – back in 2000 I was Head of Online Operations for the BBC and played a small part in the development of the BBC’s wonderful online offerings. Throughout that time there was an emphasis upon internal expertise and open-ness. The technical people were very strong and – while the frustration with the “not invented here” arrogance that sometime accompanies Tech Gods on their travels through Middle Earth – there was no doubt that suppliers knew that the technical architecture and strategy was firmly with the BBC and they they would provide a component and not be The Solution.

Over time, of course, the market will develop enterprise-grade solutions that the BBC could consider adopting. When I was paying for publishing systems in 2001, for example, you could spend millions on multilingual, XML-y, highly scalable systems. Now they’re free! In the corporate world global players have emerged for whom the BBC is a “nice to have” customer and not intimidating (eg Akamai). The world has changed.

Countering the Big Software Company developments, however, was the increased tendency to lighter software layers, increased, open data exchange – someone coined the phrase “Web2.0” for this 😉

I had expected that the BBC would continue investing in back-end data and CMS solutions, but that the ‘front end’ would be in the very open vein that they have made their own.

To see this announcement then is a cause for some small sadness. I don’t want to overplay this, but the thought of the BBC becoming a site that requires ActiveX/Windows2000 or later just to access the rich user goodness is a concern (I’m thinking of you, HMVdigital, yes you).

There are going to be clear advantages (over and above the signed photo of Ashley and Mark hugging Bill Gates as they inked the agreement in Seattle): Microsoft’s investment in Vista to “assimilate” the Web2.0 movement and to “own” rich interfaces (much as Flash once did) is not to be underestimated. Furthermore, a well-packaged, integrated production and management environment is not to be scoffed at when you think of the savings in training and maintenance. With the recent sell-offs of BBC Technology as well as BBC Broadcast & Presentation becoming Red Bee Media the corporate is now more clearly run by the Marketeers. Technology is therefore a “service” to be used by the marketing teams and creative bods.

This, for me, is the sadness. The BBC has always invested (sometimes apparently uncommercially – but hey, who ever said that the licence fee was ‘commercial’??) in skills, training and R&D. While I’m not for a second saying that this ‘partnership’ will immediately reduce this investment, it will move from being broad-based and open to focusing on developing capability with Microsoft.

Just to be clear – ignoring or dismissing Microsoft would be stupid and unnecessary. The question is whether it’s possible to have a ‘partnership’ if there is not equality (either in capability, or in an equivalence of exchange). Also, the MOU isn’t a purchase order – major expenditure would need to go through an open procurement process. This does, however, give Microsoft an advantage of being the co-author of ‘innovation’.

The hope must be now that the BBC will manage to influence Microsoft’s development of tools and capabilities in Vista so that the 5% of the world not currently using Microsoft applications ‘soup to nuts’ will not be excluded.

The radical opportunities within ‘web2.0’ are more far-reaching that software inasmuch as they challenge our ways of working together, exchanging information and collaborating. To have a major, if quiet, player appropriated into the “Proprietary Corner” would be a major disappointment.