BBCi Toolbar for Internet Explorer - 2002 style
One of the things that has interested me in recently putting together OpenSearch plugins and Google Toolbar custom buttons for BBC and newspaper related searches, is the change in the nature of web development they represent over the last few years.
I've been able to make all of these, with no official permission, in just a few hours, by stringing some XML together into a bunch of text files. They all seem to work fine so far.
By contrast, one of the earliest product development projects I worked on in anger at the BBC was in a similar area, when Tom Loosemore got me to develop a specification for a BBC Internet Explorer toolbar.
Well, technically, I worked on a BBCi Toolbar, as the BBC's online site was then branded.
A few years later, the latest incarnation of Internet Explorer not only includes the integrated search box that was missing from versions 5 and 6, but the box is available for use by third party search suppliers using an open protocol.
This shows a significant change in policy from Microsoft, as a result of the impact that the increased functionality in browsers like Opera and Firefox had on the development of Microsoft's browser, which is still used by the majority of the online population.
Back in 2002 however, getting your content, or search box onto Microsoft's browser furniture, involved making a toolbar, and delivering security signed .cab files and an installer. There wasn't much experience of that knocking around inside the BBC, and so an external company was used to produce the code.
The premise of the toolbar, as the promotional blurb explained, was quite simple:
"The BBCi Internet Explorer Toolbar means you are never far away from the BBC content you need, wherever you are online
The BBCi Internet Explorer Toolbar features easy quick links to BBC News Online, BBC Sport Online and the BBC Weather Centre, and other great BBC content like streaming audio. You'll also always have access to the BBCi web search as you surf the net.
This free tool is easily installed in seconds on your PC, and once installed the BBCi Internet Explorer Toolbar will appear automatically alongside the familiar Internet Explorer toolbar."
Although the toolbar was beta-tested internally at the BBC, it never made it to public launch. This was primarily due to not having enough time or money on the project to properly test it as a reliable piece of downloadable Windows software.
The BBC was rightfully wary of any issues that might arise from people downloading bits of software, and them making some kind of claim against the Corporation for it damaging their PC.
One of my friends spent a long-time working in marketing for a large British brand, who sometimes gave away software on CDs and DVDs that accompanied their products. He always had to budget for paying off a few malcontents who downloaded the software at around the same time as visiting some Ru33ian pr0n and warez sites. They would then blame the big brand for the ensuing chaos unleashed on their machine, rather than blaming their own lust for free stuff from dodgy sources.
Whilst it has developed a lot of internet software for production use, the BBC doesn't have a great deal of experience in offering software specifically for download to the public - something that will be very interesting to observe in the upcoming iPlayer launch.
The Internet Explorer toolbar that I produced was also very ugly indeed - deliberately so. Tom was keen to avoid any senior management seeing it, thinking it was great, and saying "Launch that now!" before it had been tested thoroughly. The idea was to give it a UI makeover once it had passed the proof-of-concept stage.
Seeing as I'd been thinking about the old BBCi Toolbar for Internet Explorer, but hadn't retained any screenshots or documentation about it myself, I wondered if it was still on the BBC's servers.
Lo and behold, if you could remember the URL and password for the external development server it was hosted on, there it was.
I haven't been able to install it so far however, since Internet Explorer 7 fails the browser-sniffing test and won't let me get to the download page, and I haven't found anywhere locally with a version of IE6 that I could try it with.
Looking at a test product I put together 5 years ago also shows up some changes in my own attitude to developing products.
At the time I forcefully argued with the developers that it should work with all versions of Internet Explorer that accepted third-party toolbars, on all variations of Windows, and I remember that I wouldn't sign off the install process as it sometimes went horribly, horribly, wrong on Windows NT machines in a way that I could never comfortably reproduce during testing.
Nowadays, rather as the BBC has done with the iPlayer, I would have instead asked for delivery on one specific combination of Internet Explorer version on the most recent version of Windows, and then judged the effort, cost and reach of expanding into the realms of backwards compatibility.
Not then however, when I insisted that even versions of Internet Explorer with known issues of toolbar implementation were supported, as evidenced by this from the FAQ on the internal beta support site:
There is a known issue with some earlier versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer which call all their additional toolbars "Radio". If you see two "Radio" options, select the second and the BBCi Internet Explorer Toolbar should then appear.
Looking back at my original specification for the toolbar, it is noticeable that I didn't build in any user personalisation. If you downloaded it, you got all of the buttons added to your browser - there was no chance to drop some or rearrange them.
The buttons could be updated dynamically from the BBC's side however.
The toolbar was designed to phone home and check an XML configuration file (which I reckon must also still be sitting on the live bbc.co.uk server somewhere if I could only remember the URL) that controlled what appeared in the drop-down menus.
This was firstly so that a central team managing the toolbar implementation could change the URLs that the toolbar linked to, in order to add seasonal promotional events like Christmas or Glastonbury. Secondly, it would allow services to be added and dropped from the toolbar if it became necessary, and links to be changed if the site was reorganised.
In retrospect, I'm rather glad that the product didn't actually get to a public launch.
I suspect that, if it had, even now I would personally be getting emails pointing out that it exhibited some buggy behaviour on Internet Explorer 5.5, if the user was running Windows XP without SP2, and also had three other custom toolbars installed, or some such combo that was never on my original text matrix.