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Monday, December 14, 2009

The Man who Plans to Bring the Internet to Your Television Screen

Project Canvas can transform British living rooms, the BBC's Erik Huggers tells Ian Burrell
Erik Huggers chooses to meet in the boardroom at the BBC's Media Centre, home to the corporation's equivalent of the Black Museum at Scotland Yard, a collection of clunky exhibits and blunt instruments from a dark past before the advent of touchscreen science.

At least that's what you might expect this Dutchman to think, given that he is director of future media and technology and tasked with envisioning how we will be consuming information and entertainment through the fast approaching new decade. On the contrary, he argues, these artefacts are historic symbols of an organisation that has always had engineering at its core, and has long invested in research and development for the greater good of the British people. Hallelujah.

The crystal-ball gazer points out the spinning globe used in the BBC's early idents, then a crystal radio dating to 1923, before picking up a fading book from 1942. "What do you do when the bombs are falling?" he asks. "If you are the BBC you say 'Let's write the Engineering Division Training Manual'."

Huggers, 36, turns to his favourite picture of 1940s BBC staff, working in lab coats. "It's almost like a nuclear power plant. It's like 'Beam me up Scotty!', 'A bit more power captain!'," he says. "The first employee of the BBC was an engineer, which says it all in my mind. This division came out of the engineering heritage and is about using engineering capabilities to deliver the BBC's mission."

As he settles down behind his laptop, the former senior Microsoft executive seems far from embarrassed by its Apple branding. Indeed, Steve Jobs' company is very close to his thoughts as he muses on the potential of Project Canvas, the ambitious plan to transform our living room media consumption by bringing the internet to our television screens. It could offer not merely opportunities to watch programmes again but to see what's being said about them on Twitter, recommend them to friends on Facebook and even – a brave new world for the BBC – to spend money on related products and services.

We are at a critical moment in the genesis of Canvas, which awaits approval from the BBC Trust amid complaints from BSkyB that the venture (being jointly undertaken by the BBC, ITV, BT and Five) is an inappropriate use of licence-fee money. The Trust is expected to give its verdict any day now. "Nail biting!" says Huggers, whose vocabulary and accent lean toward America's West Coast.

He has invested much in this adventure and its rejection by the Trust would be a great blow. The audience also has much to lose, he claims. "The risk is complete fragmentation of the market place," he says of the danger that individual consumer electronics giants and pay-TV platforms are each left to set up their own online TV offerings. "For consumers what this will lead to, in a nutshell, is complete confusion."

The "unified platform" of Canvas, he claims, will avoid a world of "vertical islands" where companies try to lock consumers in, and offer a "horizontal standard" that is universally beneficial. "If we can get to a world where there's agreement across the industry for a single approach that can reach critical mass what you then get is economies of scale and the price of the devices will go down," he says.

With Trust approval, Canvas set-top boxes could be on the shelves this time next year. For the BBC, this is an opportunity to safeguard the future of its Freeview and Freesat public service programming. But Huggers is also keen to stress the commercial potential of the proposition.

On the desk, alongside his laptop is his Apple iPhone. He makes a paean to the functionality of his mobile and the access it offers to 115,000 applications. "Why can't that happen on the living room TV?" he asks. "My sincere hope is that we can somehow facilitate something similar for the British audience in the British living room, not just for the British licence-fee payers but frankly for the British economy."

Canvas is a platform that will, "allow third parties to develop services and applications that can reach hopefully an audience of millions in the living room via the internet," bringing potentially tens of thousands of applications to the TV screen and allowing small businesses to promote their wares to mass audiences watching from Britain's sofas.

"How cool would it be if the NHS developed a fantastic Canvas application that gave you access to your NHS material so that you can book a meeting with the doctor and check on the status of the sample that was taken to the lab?" asks Huggers. "Or if Job Centre Plus were to develop a Canvas application that gives you access to their database?"

Aside from such public service "apps", Canvas could be an opportunity for commercial players too. "Love Film has a rental DVD business. Why do they need to send you a shiny round disc? Isn't that a bit past tense, a bit old school? Why can't they deliver that same film directly via the internet to a Canvas box?" Huggers says the BBC has no direct interest in such commercial activity. "Our interest is obviously 100 per cent in the public service remit," he says. As for Sky, it's welcome to become a founding partner of Canvas or put its services on the platform.

"Sky are very happy to put Sky Player on the Xbox, there's no reason why that exact same arrangement couldn't work for Sky and Canvas."

A third version of the BBC's iPlayer will launch in the first quarter of 2010 with a new design that allows users to see what their friends have watched. "We will do it with Twitter, Bebo, Windows Live, Facebook, wherever our users happen to have a social network."
This integration with other online brands, like the partnership nature of Canvas, is part of a new spirit of co-operation within the BBC. Huggers suggests this could lead to the BBC news website displaying the stories and analysis of other news providers.

"Just like we're making BBC news available on third party news websites... I think it's going to be interesting to see over the next year or so how there's going to be potential for making it flow the other way round as well." That might help counter criticisms that the BBC's online ambitions damage other British media. Despite those accusations, Huggers, who joined the BBC in 2007, suprisingly claims that persuading his colleagues that online activity should be more than a bolt on to television and radio, "hasn't been an easy task".

"What I've been talking about –and it's literally taken two-and-a-half years – is the need for a partnership between creative editorial people and creative technology people who work hand in glove to create new exciting online products which reach PCs, TVs, mobile devices, whatever IP-connected devices consumers wish to choose in the future," he says. It has been "challenging", but he has now won that argument. "It's not a bolt on anymore," he says. "[There is now a] realisation that the internet as a platform and BBC online as our service on that platform represent the past, present and future of everything the BBC does."



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