Should the BBC have entered the iTunes store without a full Public Value Test?
I'll start with the disclaimers. I work at The Guardian. I worked on our iPhone app. I used to work at the BBC. This is a personal blog. It never represented the views of the BBC, and it doesn't represent the views of Guardian News & Media.
Last week the BBC Trust gave permission for the BBC to launch applications into the iTunes store, which, in a lot of places was very much welcomed. There are all sorts of reasons why it could be a good thing to have BBC in that space. It should drive up demand and consumption of news. It puts public service news broadcasting onto smartphones. It protects the BBC brand from the unofficial apps using BBC content. And, given that the apps were already available overseas, it ended a frankly untenable position where Licence Fee payers were unable to get BBC apps that were freely available outside the UK.
Personally though, I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed by the BBC Trust's decision not to put the proposals to a full Public Value Test.
The digital era has posed newspapers the challenge of innovating our products and generating new revenue streams. With The Guardian's paid for download app, and with The Times' recurring subscription iPad app, that is exactly what we've been trying to do. And at a time when we are struggling across the board to fund news organisations, here was a very nascent market in getting people to pay for bundled news.
For me, the key issue that the BBC Trust had to rule on was exactly how much impact the apps would have in that emerging market. Apple tightly control the app store as the legitimate gateway to getting software onto the iPhone. As of the end of last week, directly at the point of purchase for commercial news applications, there is now a call to action to the consumer to choose a Licence Fee funded alternative.
I struggle to understand how placing BBC content in the app store was defined by the Trust as not being "a new area of activity for the BBC".
Still, there is no point moaning about it. We have to accept that the BBC now has a presence in the iTunes store, and that we'll have to compete harder.
We can't compete on business model - having a guaranteed income free from fluctuations in the advertising market is a luxury only the BBC has. But as an industry we can compete on content - where we have comment, opinion and editorial analysis of much greater depth than the BBC's due impartiality allows. And we can compete on features - the BBC application doesn't support offline browsing or the range of archive material that other news apps do.
I like the BBC News app, it is solid enough, and I'm sure I'll use it.
I just wish the BBC Trust had paused long enough to carry out the full PVT.
At Guardian News & Media we've only had eight months to try and sell news via iTunes without direct competition from the BBC, The Times have had even less for their iPad app.
Given the fragile state of the news industry business model, personally I would have preferred the Trust to carry out every possible piece of due diligence before giving the BBC permission to launch the apps.