Sean Daly's telephone interview [Ogg1] with
Ashley Highfield, BBC Future Media and Technology Director
November 14, 2007
Q: This is Sean Daly, reporting for Groklaw. I'm very pleased to be on the wire with Ashley Highfield. Good afternoon to you.
Ashley Highfield: Hi there.
Q: I want to first of all thank you for joining us. I know you have a very busy schedule.
Ashley Highfield: Well, thank you for inviting me. I think it's a good opportunity to have a useful dialog.
Q: Let's jump right into it. You've angered Linux, GNU/Linux users around the world by what were viewed as dismissive remarks, apparently a lack of concern... What would you like to say now to the community?
Ashley Highfield: Well, I mean, first of all I'm very sorry if that was the way that my comments were interpreted. I absolutely didn't mean to upset the Linux or GNU/open source community in any way, and they are just as important users of our web services as our Mac users, as are our PC Windows-based users. So I'm quite happy to apologize again if they feel that I was in any way being dismissive of them.
Q: Let's talk about a comment that we've seen often that there are some ex-Microsofties working for the BBC now, and that they were instrumental in the choices of Microsoft DRM. Is that the case?
Ashley Highfield: No, that's absolutely not the case. The history is that we have chosen a number of different software partners and providers over the last several years.
You may be aware we've had a long-running relationship with Real, for instance. And the decision to use Microsoft as a partner predates the specific appointment of Erik Huggers. And indeed subsequent to his arrival I think most people might have been expecting us to go forward with the Microsoft Silverlight solution, and in fact our recent announcement of using the Adobe suite of products for streaming,2 I hope, begins to show people that we absolutely haven't recruited people to sort of strengthen a in-built bias to use Microsoft tools, because that is just not the case.
Q: What about the letter of intent that was signed with Microsoft? What was in there?
Ashley Highfield: Well, the letter of intent with Microsoft is a very typical way that we try and strengthen the BBC's brokerage power, really, with our major suppliers. We have a similar memorandum of understanding with IBM, and obviously we have a deeper relationship with Siemens. We have a similar MoU, memorandum of understanding, with Google. So this is not at all just specific to Microsoft, but Microsoft are a major supplier of desktop software, obviously, and of server software and are engaged with the BBC across a number of projects. The largest value ones are some of the internal projects such as the Digital Media Initiative and some of our work around, as I said, the desktop, the enterprise agreement. And the MoU was an attempt to leverage those large relationships where the BBC spends, often through Siemens, a considerable amount of money with Microsoft -- to leverage that into basically better deals and a better understanding of Microsoft's future plans and early access to its technology like Vista, to leverage the big spend to get more out of them on those audience-facing sides of things.
Q: Let's talk for a minute about Microsoft's future plans with DRM. They announced the PlayReady project, but isn't that a Microsoft-only technology?
Ashley Highfield: I don't know whether that's a Microsoft-only technology. I think that the important part for this conversation is that we have not made a decision to go with that software, and we are -- I think it's important to say that we are absolutely not wedded to the Microsoft DRM solution. And indeed, going forward, we are looking at two long-term solutions. One is an open source solution to DRM. The other -- because I think that is probably only an interim solution -- the long-term alternative solution is a world beyond DRM and how we can work together, particularly with our rights holders, to get to a world beyond DRM.
Q: Well, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that part of the situation you find yourself in today is due to the use of DRM. Could you expand a little bit on what a world without DRM would be like? How would you deal with that, with the rights holders?
Ashley Highfield: Well, I mean, first of all, let me just address that point of the situation we are in at the moment is because of DRM. The situation we are in at the moment is one where the UK -- I think, pretty much, uniquely -- has almost all of the content, the television content, that is consumed in the UK from all of the major broadcasters and certainly all the main public-service broadcasters -- the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 -- all available, for a period, free at the point of consumption, over IP.
Now, *that* has required a very long-term negotiation with the rights holders who up until two or three years ago were in a position of just simply not allowing any of their content, apart from very short clips, to be made available over IP. So this is something that we have taken the industry through the trade body for rights holders in the UK called PACT, P.A.C.T. -- we have taken them on this journey from no content being made available apart from clips to one where not just us now, but all the broadcasters, public-service broadcasters in the UK, are able to offer their television programs for a period of time free over the Internet.
And the way we've done that is by managing to assure the rights holders that their content will not easily be distributed beyond the UK where they have very important and for them, lucrative secondary rights windows. Now, that has required us to demonstrate a robust use of digital rights management. That's where we are.
And so where we are is a dramatically improved position from where we were two or three years ago when there was no content available -- to where we are now, where all of the broadcasters in the UK accounting for 80% of share of television have got their content up on the internet.
Where we want to get to is a much more flexible world where the content would be free of DRM. Now, that as an outcome would be of benefit for the audience, would be of benefit for the BBC. We've got to find ways in which that would not harm the rights holders' business. And that really is, I suppose, a challenge, and it's a challenge for all of us to work together on.
Q: Well, could I characterize the key problem as making sure that the people who work to create the content are paid for their work?
Ashley Highfield: Yes, I think that's a pretty reasonable way of summarizing it. (laughter)
Q: (laughter) So, do the rights holders, do they knock on the door and say, well, "There has to be DRM"? Or do they say, well, "We would like to be paid. What do you propose"?
Ashley Highfield: Well, they started from the principle of, "We just don't know the way this market is going to develop. We don't want any of our content to be made available." A lot of the rights holders are not at all familiar with this world. They are often writers, or directors, or producers -- and for them, they can see that this world has opportunity, but they also see that it has great risk of undermining their current business. And so this is something that we've had to take them on a journey with. And the initial point was, yes, convincing them that the content was well-protected, that once they understood enough about copyright and digital rights management to want to be assured that the content would be available free within the UK but not freely copying available outside the UK. And we had auditors in to demonstrate that that was the case.
For example, during the [2004 Athens] Olympics, where the Olympics Committee gave us the right to make the content available within the UK but wanted it independently audited to show that it couldn't get outside the UK, because of course the Olympics Committee had sold those very same rights again and again and again around the world. So this was both a way of gaining the trust of the rights holders....
I think we have that trust now, although these are still early days because we've only recently launched our download service and the streaming service for iPlayer only goes live at Christmas -- but the next stage will be to engage with the rights holders, as we already have done. We've already started these conversations as to how we can move forward into a world, as I say, beyond DRM, but one where they still get rewarded.
Q: There are two aspects of DRM that traditionally annoy end users. There's the difficulty of transferring between devices. But there's also the privacy aspect. People are concerned about being tracked. How would you address that?
Ashley Highfield: And I think that's a very serious and real concern that we take extremely seriously. And we make sure that the users of iPlayer are aware that the BBC may use personal data and the usage data collected from the registration in order to basically evaluate how the service is working, on the administration side of it too, for example, manage capacity and load management to improve their experience of BBC iPlayer, for example to know what they like in order to be able to offer them other programming they might like -- basics of "Amazonization". Only where the audience member has opted to do so would the BBC use personal details to provide them with marketing information, and specifically, the BBC would not use any personal data for any other purposes other than those. And I think that that is as important to us as it would be to our audience. The BBC brand is based on trust, and the last thing I would want to do is to undermine that in any way.
Q: Now, a moment ago you mentioned that you were looking at a free software implementation of DRM. Is it OpenIPMP, or Java DReaM? Which one are you looking at?
Ashley Highfield: I'm not going to comment at the moment on what technical solutions we're looking at. All I can confirm is that we do have a workstream at our research and innovation base to open DRM.
Q: Now, in your BBC backstage podcast and your subsequent blog posting, you mentioned Dirac, the BBC free software codec.
Ashley Highfield: Yeah.
Q: It's scalable, it's an open codec. It was shown at NAB in Las Vegas, IBC in Amsterdam [PDF] ...
Ashley Highfield: It is.
Q: ...It may become a SMPTE standard. 3 Why are you not using it in iPlayer?
Ashley Highfield: Well, I mean, I think Dirac is a great product, and I am directly funding it, and supporting it, and wish to see it grow in its usage. It is a service, as you said, to enable more efficient transmission of video files. It isn't an encryption solution. It's an encoding solution, and it wasn't mature at the time of the rollout of iPlayer. It's predominantly aimed at moving video around inside the organization. But absolutely, if we can find an application for Dirac within our video services to our audiences, we will. But it's not the solution, I think, to that which you're talking about, but we do have a separate workstream looking at open DRM. But even that, as I think you'd agree, is not the solution. The solution is actually to find a solution to DRM, to move beyond DRM in the long run.
Q: Let's talk for a moment about the iPlayer P2P architecture4. It says in the End User License Agreement that the BBC license fee payer who signs up agrees to allow the software to use their bandwidth and in fact they can't throttle it, they can't reduce it, and they can't increase it either. Have you considered opening that up so that the license fee payers can control their own bandwidth?
Ashley Highfield: Yeah, now this is a good point, and we got quite a lot of unsolicited user feedback on this, and we know we needed to give our audience more control. And now we've put in place a method for users to switch off the P2P when they're not using the service and when they are using the service P2P remains on, and that went operational a few weeks ago. I think that going beyond that we do need to look at how we implement P2P and what levels of flexibility there are for different users to effectively allocate more P2P bandwidth, or less. And I think this an interesting point, and it's something we're actively looking at.
Q: Let's talk about costs for a moment. Now, there have been some enormous costs discussed, costs that are going to come. Now, the impression I have -- I could certainly be wrong -- is that well beyond the iPlayer client software project, there are other costs which could include rights, or software licenses, or consulting, or development. What is the picture on costs?
Ashley Highfield: Well, I think that there may be a bit of confusion out there, that the headline costs projected for the next five years for iPlayer, the costs that were in the public realm, of £130 million [pounds], are for all of the BBC's digitization and storage of its digital content, of the rights clearance, of the distribution, well beyond just the implementation of iPlayer or the use of all of that content by iPlayer. The headline figure -- which, incidentally, we are expecting to be less than £130m -- but that headline figure over the next five years was for in some ways, the transformation internally of the BBC from a largely analog and tape-based BBC -- linear-based BBC -- to a digital on-demand infrastructure which will power a great deal of services from the BBC, one of which is the iPlayer. The actual incremental costs of the iPlayer service, the marginal costs that can be attributed just to the iPlayer, i.e., the development cost purely of the iPlayer have been in the order of four and a half million pounds.
Q: So what would you say is the lion's share of the costs? What's the single biggest cost? Are salaries in there?
Ashley Highfield: Salaries for development and operations are in there; I think they are one of the significant line items. Certainly the rights costs are a significant line item. The digitization and storage of our content, that is a big initiative within the BBC. I can't underestimate the cost and the effort to take what is essentially a tape-driven organization and move that to one where content is shot digitally, stored digitally, and then broadcast or distributed digitally. And that kind of transformation is quite profound and quite expensive, but it is basically, I think, one of the basic ingredients for survival of the BBC. I mean, if we are going to remain relevant in the digital age, we have to transform ourselves from a tape-based organization to a digital one, and that doesn't come cheap. But as I said, the incremental cost of the iPlayer are nothing like those headline figures.
Q: Two more questions. An approach that you could take to deliver content is to build on an existing client/services platform. Of course, there's YouTube, iTunes, Joost, Hulu has just come out, there are sites such as Bebo, and Miro just went live with their version 1 yesterday. I believe that you have said that you would not want the BBC to be disintermediated. Could you expand on that?
Ashley Highfield: Yes. The BBC does distribute through other platforms, but we need to be careful that our audience are able to enjoy our content as they would expect. So that means at a high quality, without that content being surrounded by adverts. We would like our audience to be able to know that this content came from the BBC, and therefore what else they could get from the BBC; all of that, there is a risk for disintermediation -- i.e., when we provide our content to third parties -- of any or all of that happening. And we just need to be very careful before we simply hand over our programs to an iTunes, that we can retain that level of relationship with our audience, and our audience are able to enjoy our content as we intended in the first place.
And I think that that, for us, is the balance, that to give our audience what they want, we need to maintain an understanding of what they are consuming, what they like, what they don't like, how much of a program they watched. And we need to be able also to guarantee that the program gets to them at a high quality, and also -- particularly for the BBC -- unsullied by, you know, spam, virusware, or adverts.
Q: All right. Last question: I think you'd agree with me that the movement of video online is inevitable --
Ashley Highfield: Yes.
Q: Where do you see BBC programs online five years from now, or ten, very far out? But I'm sure you have ideas of the long term of things to come?
Ashley Highfield: Well, look. I would hope that -- and I agree with you that video will become pervasive on the Internet. And IP consumption of video will begin to account for a lot of people's overall video consumption -- I would hope that people would be able to find the content where they want to, whether they are finding it through Google, or YouTube, or Bebo. I would also hope that they would come to the BBC's own website as well.
This is not an either/or argument. I think that as we've shown with the BBC's website at the moment, it's the third most used website in the UK. 17 million people in the UK use bbc.co.uk. There is a strength to having all of the content in one place, without adverts, with a guarantee of the quality they experience, and I think that there's a great value for that.
There is also a value for us to get our content out, distributed across the Net, and to allow people to come to us and take our content away with them and put it up on MySpace or link to it from Facebook. And so I think that that, for us, is our strategy, to do both. And I think the only issue for us is where we do give our content away to third parties, or have it syndicated to third parties, as I said to the last question, we just want to be able to insure that our audience are able to enjoy our content as it was originally intended.
Q: All right, Mr. Highfield, thank you very much for joining us today.
Ashley Highfield: It was a pleasure. Thank you very much.
You can get Audacity for Windows, Macs, Solaris and Linux here to play Ogg files.
Adobe announced DRM for Flash at NAB last April.
See this PDF presentation from the June HD Masters conference.