Why the BBC Trust simply had to examine the BBC's iPhone plans
It was announced yesterday that the BBC is to delay their entry into the iPhone application market, pending an investigation by the BBC Trust, and the possible application of a 'Public Value Test' and a 'Market Impact Assessment'.
I can't really see how there could have been any other course of regulatory action.
The plans had been justified by the blanket service condition that BBC Online content can be re-purposed for other formats, but it is arguable whether this is really the case with iPhone apps. All iPhones have Safari on them. BBC News content as it exists already works in Safari. Ergo the BBC has already re-purposed their online content to work on the iPhone. Building an app would appear, on the face of it, to be an entirely new service.
"The BBC can't launch a new service, or make significant changes to an existing service, without asking our permission. Before giving the go ahead we consider whether or not to launch a public value test (PVT). If we do decide to launch a PVT, the new service or the change to an existing service can't happen until the PVT is complete."
Section 2.5 of the BBC Trust documentation about when a Public Value and Market Impact test should be invoked says they have to consider four criteria. Two of these seem to be clearly involved.
Clause 2.5.d is duration of the service. To the best of our knowledge, the iPhone app is a permanent addition to the BBC's activities.
Clause 2.5.c is the most interesting. Whilst the "re-purposing of content" might cover the appearance of stories within an app, the official appearance of BBC applications in the iTunes store, directly at the potential point of purchase of alternative commercial offerings, is surely the very definition of:
"c) novelty – the extent to which the change would involve the BBC in a new area of activity, as yet untested"
It also seems interesting that the BBC was planing to launch on the iPhone platform first. When the iPlayer was launched, the first box ticked was Windows users, because they represented the highest number of users. Indeed, in 2008, Mark Thompson said:
"At the time of the development of the BBC iPlayer, the BBC was forced to choose between offering the service to a majority of users immediately - or to not offer catchup TV over the internet until full platform neutrality could be achieved. We chose to begin by serving the greatest number of licence-fee payers possible, and to follow up on that work to extend the service to other operating systems at the earliest opportunity."
With mobile applications though, the BBC is launching on Apple's platform, which has a lower install base in the UK than Symbian or Blackberry phones. In fact, you could make an argument that if the BBC were to enter the market, it should do so in order to stimulate demand for apps on the Symbian and Blackberry platforms, which, despite their larger usage base, have significantly less app activity than the iPhone at present.
That isn't to pre-judge the outcome of any test. You can construct an argument for why the BBC should have a presence in the app store - plurality of news provision, presence of public service content on a platform, or protection of the BBC brand from criticism that has been caused by unofficial applications.
Still, it would have been utterly astonishing to me had these questions not been asked by either the BBC Trust or Ofcom. At a time when the BBC has been claiming that shutting down 5 year old websites like Jamie Kane represents a retreat from expanding their digital footprint, to allow them to enter the app store without even a cursory examination of the potential impact would have been a total regulatory failure.
Disclaimer: The views expressed on currybetdotnet are my own, and do not reflect the views of Guardian News and Media Limited, or any current or former employers or clients.