Mediatique's BBC Trust research raises more questions about the lack of a BBC iPhone app Public Value Test

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 29 July 2010
"The market for Mobile Apps is immature, chaotic and competitive, and there is a paucity of concrete data on the basis of which to form definitive conclusions" - Mediatique research for BBC Trust, June 2010

Without wanting to become a single subject blog this week, I wanted to return to the topic of the BBC Trust decision not to carry out a full Public Value Test into the BBC's entry into the smartphone apps market. One thing I will give the Trust praise for is, that like the Governors before them, they make their research documents public. I've had a little time to study the report they commissioned from Mediatique, and I wanted to pick up on a few points it contained.

The iPad question

On page 7 of the Mediatique report there is the following statement:

"There are a range of devices, including e-readers and Apple's iPad, that share many of the characteristics of smartphones, but which are outside the scope of our analysis"

This quite clearly states that Mediatique did not look at the market for iPad applications. If I was one of the people currently trying to get an iPad app subscription model to work for The Times, I would be absolutely furious that the Trust appear to have approved the entry of a specific BBC News iPad app into the iTunes store on the basis of no independent market research whatsoever.

Revenue models across different platforms

When looking at revenue models for news apps, the research produced for the Trust states:

"Revenue models vary across the spectrum of news apps, however the majority are freely available - a very recent survey undertaken by Journalism.com found that 24 of the most popular 36 news apps on Apple's App Store were free. In addition, The FT and The Wall Street Journal offer free access to those with an existing offline or online subscription; a notable exception to these trends is the Guardian, whose app is priced at £2.39 on iTunes, although the Guardian's app on Blackberry's App World is available for free."

If you are unfamiliar with the app landscape - and that is, after all, why the report was commissioned - you could be forgiven for thinking that with regard to The Guardian, Mediatique are comparing like with like.

However, the iPhone app which we charge £2.39 for is a fully functioning browse experience for guardian.co.uk content in a self-contained environment. The Blackberry offering, on the other hand, is a 'launcher app', which is little more than a glorified web bookmark with an icon.

From the way the two 'apps' are presented in this part of the study, you would be hard pushed to understand that they did not represent similar products at all, hence the difference in the pricing points.

The impact of free content

On page 32 of the Mediatique report, they state:

"Experience from the online sector confirms that consumers are typically unwilling to pay for content where there are free alternatives"

Yet the BBC's Trust announcement, says that:

"In response to industry concerns, the Trust also considered that that there would be some overlap between the BBC Apps and free Apps, but that impacts may not necessarily be large...The degree of overlap with premium or paid Apps was also expected to be lower."

That conclusion - that the BBC's impact on paid apps will be less than their impact on free apps - seems completely at odds with the research.

And finally...

At the Changing Media Summit earlier this year, Erik Huggers said:

"Apps for me are no different from a browser. They really aren't".

He's completely wrong.

iPhone apps are very different from a browser, and one of the defining things that makes them different is that they are sold in a shop. A shop which now contains a shelf of free BBC things, right next to where commercial news organisations are trying to encourage a market to develop.

The Guardian & BBC news apps on the same page of the iTunes store

Anyway, I shall leave this as my last word on the subject. As William T pointed out in an excellent comment on my last post - it is easy to come across as sounding like I have a bad case of the sour grapes. I think there are potentially lots of reasons why BBC smartphone apps are good for consumers and for the Corporation.

I just don't believe, having read the research that they based their findings on, that the BBC Trust have performed their regulatory function correctly. In the case of the BBC News iPad app in particular, it appears they reached their decision not to carry out a full Public Value Test on the basis of no independent research into the market whatsoever. That surely can't be right.

2 Comments

I don't think its a free app, we pay our license fee and its another way to consume the output we have already paid for. If I choose to pay for the excellent Guardian app thats fine, but I'm personally sick of the bleeting from people who wish to make cash / develop the market while holding back our national broadcaster from serving the people who pay for it.

It would be fabulous if the BBC were given the freedom to innovate and inform without the constant need to limit itself or fret over whether Rupert Murdoch's bottom line was threatened. The Beeb should limit its activities (buying Lonely Planet for example) but the constant death by review and trust approval process is as ridiculous as it would have been to limit it to radio when it first moved into new fangled Telly, or from TV to online.

I should add the disclaimer that I work for the BBC, but nowhere app related and I held the same views before I was eployed by them. Obviously feel free to dismiss my moan accordingly! Really enjoy your site by the way.

Congratulations! I am hereby recinding my "BBC fanboy" nickname for you.

I'd gently point out that the BBC's raison d'etre is to offer demonstrably great value for the licence-fee; and it serves nobody to make that value less impressive. The BBC's multiplatform strategy is the right one, and it's The Guardian's choice whether it wishes to give its website away free (like the BBC) or charge for an iPhone app (unlike the BBC).

I'd also gently point out that research on the iPad is almost impossible since it's only been out two minutes.

I'd also, boringly, point out that unless the BBC releases an Android app imminently, it's very open to accusations of favouritism which are not acceptable for a publicly-funded organisation. While The Guardian clearly can't be arsed to support the most popular mobile phone platform (with more activations every day than the iPhone, even at the peak of the iPhone 4), the BBC has to be careful not to pick and choose which of its licence-fee payers it wishes to give an app to.

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