Opinion: BBC Internet 'guru' Ashley Highfield wasn't spectacular, all he did was give cyberspace a 'play' button

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jonathan-weinberg-final.jpgJonathan Weinberg writes…

It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have much money. The best innovators often produce the most fantastic efforts when they’re doing it on a shoe-string. Look at Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, he didn’t have millions of pounds when he started it, he simply had passion, drive and a simple idea for something he believed would work.

So the news today that the BBC’s New Media boss is to stand down and move to launch an on-demand video service for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 strikes me as interesting. Ashley Highfield has been feted as one of the most important people on the Internet. But admittedly, he controls a budget of £74m a year. Surely even a chimp in a tutu could do some decent work with that kind of cash to fund it.

The plan is that “Project Kangaroo” (dumb name for a start) will become the Freeview of the Internet offering more than 10,000 hours of programmes. Now I’ve nothing against that, I love TV. In fact, I’m an addict as my friends will tell you, judging by my preference to stay in and watch rubbish on the box rather than going out with them.

But just because this bloke “masterminded” the launch of the excellent iPlayer (a well-designed PLAY button), doesn’t mean he can change the face of the way we watch our favourite shows. And surely doing so isn’t even that difficult!

The success of time-shifting gadgets such as Sky+ has undoubtedly opened up a new world of viewing. It is yet to be the “watch what you want, when you want” holy grail of a set-top box but Sky’s initial moves changed the way we sat down on the sofa, moving
those set times of the week to any time of the week – assuming we’d programmed the box to record and obviously if it actually recorded and didn’t FAIL like mine has on important occasions.

So it stands to reason putting as many shows as you can on the web, to watch whenever you fancy, is a winner from start to finish. You don’t need a genius with a degree in astrophysics to bring that to fruition.

This sounds like a dig at Mr Highfield and it isn’t. I don’t know the man personally, so he could well be a genius. What it is though is a moan about the so-called success he brought to the BBC – paid for by you and me (assuming you live in the UK when you read this). Having that much cash at his disposal, how could he fail? Director General of the Beeb, Mark Thompson calls him “pivotal in transforming the BBC for the digital age”.

But just think what could be created if the Zuckerbergs of this world were given access to such piles of cash. I have friends and colleagues who are fantastic at creating stuff on the web, but lack the funds to make it big-time. For every Facebook, there are dozens of start-ups that fail through lack of investment.

According to the glowing reference on the BBC site, in 2003, Highfield was awarded the Digital Innovator Internet Award by The Sunday Times and a year later he was named “most influential individual in technology” by Silicon.com.

So far there aren’t too many details about his new product. But to me, putting TV shows on the web for people to watch sounds a bit like selling coals to Newcastle as the old saying goes. It’s simply giving us all what we want and what we expect from web 2.0. You don’t need to be a Digital Innovator to do that.

Over at TechCrunch UK, they put Ashley Highfield’s budget figures far higher. Editor Mike Butcher calls for the BBC to open itself up following the departure of its top man and give start-ups a chance to flourish. That’s not a bad idea but would have to be tightly controlled because at the end of the day, the cash and experience they’d be offering comes from our pockets, not the deep ones of some venture capitalist.

It is about time though that the BBC was forced to stop its rapid expansion into the private sector using public money. It has grown enormously and is certainly one of the best networks around. But money talks and maybe it’s time the BBC was forced by the
Government to take its public service remit to another level.

Any successor to Ashley Highfield would truly be a Digital Innovator if he or she found the ability to use the BBC’s technology for the greater good… to encourage and sustain tomorrow’s generation of web talents.

That would truly be a lasting legacy worthy of praise. It shows far more foresight than uploading EastEnders and Hotel Babylon into cyberspace hidden behind what is essentially just a Play button graphic.

What do you think? Should the BBC be using its expertise in the digital arena for the greater good? What is the future of web TV? Post a comment below…

Jonathan Weinberg