Ashley Highfield, the BBC director of new media and technology, shared a stage with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates at the Mix06 Conference in Las Vegas. He showed a vision of the future of television, in the form of a BBC application running on the forthcoming Windows Vista platform.

The director of the BBC new media and technology division, which runs one of the world’s biggest pure content web sites, said that the last year has seen a dramatic shift with an exponential increase in the amount of rich media served.

“You can partly explain that I guess by the take up of broadband in the UK,” he said, “but there’s something more than that. I think that what we’re seeing is the audience expectations that they’ve got from the music industry of being able to consume the music on their terms,” he said. “They’re now starting to expect that from television. They want television on their terms, they want to watch it whenever, however, wherever. And we as a media company, need to respond to that.”

The distribution costs are also falling. He said the cost of delivering a television channel over the air is around £7 million a year using digital terrestrial television, and around £700,000 over satellite. Using approaches such as multicast and peer-to-peer delivery over the internet, the cost can fall to around £70,000.

Bill Gates asked what issues the BBC had to confront. Ashley replied that one was ensuring quality of service, and the other is digital rights management.

Quality of service
“Up till now the video we’ve put onto the Internet, let’s say our live news, our audience hasn’t minded too much if it’s in a small window, if it’s jerky, if there’s a bit of buffering, because really they’re after the headlines and that’s okay, but it’s clearly not okay for a drama or an entertainment show.”

The solution has been to adopt a dual track approach: using multicast to improve the quality and reduce the cost of distributing live streams and using peer-to-peer delivery for downloads.

Digital rights management
Some form of digital rights management or DRM is necessary to protect programming, but it needs to be easy to use, he suggested.

“Wherever possible we want to give our audience a chance to view our programmes for at least a week for free. We want a kind of sophisticated DRM that would allow that, then move into potentially a pay model,” explained the BBC executive, adding “unfortunately in the U.S. you may have to pay”.

“That kind of sophisticated DRM will improve the partnership with yourselves, for instance,” he told the Microsoft chairman.

Vista vision
Ashley then gave a demonstration of a BBC application running on the forthcoming Microsoft Windows Vista operating system. He began by searching for the programme Bleak House. As he typed, thumbnail images appeared of matching programmes, initially showing Black Adder and Blake’s 7, which produced a murmur of approval from the audience. Launching an episode of the Dickens serial, he joked that for those that don’t visit England, it is not a contemporary drama.

Compared to the previous trial version of the BBC iMP media player, the Vista version looked sumptuously sleek, with translucent windows gliding smoothly across the screen, rather more like a Mac application.

The concept demonstration showed searching by genre, selecting a clip from The Office, a comedy from which he said he had learned everything he knows about leadership, which he recommended to Bill by dragging it to his contact list and onto his playlist.

He went on to show a clip from the wonderful new natural history programme Planet Earth which he showed playing on a Media Center.

Asked by Bill what other hurdles he faced, Ashley said that although viewing this content on the computer screen was less of a problem than they had initially thought, for a lot of people the barrier was still getting it onto their television set, so there was a great interest in products such as the Media Center and digital media extenders like the Xbox 360.

“Well, its fantastic,” said Bill Gates “and we’re going to do everything we can to help you with that”.

To keep pace with the unprecedented rate of change, Ashley Highfield says it is imperative that the BBC works with partners such as Microsoft, on a non-exclusive basis.

“We have a duty of universality,” he said in a statement, “so it’s vital that we innovate through a number of strategic partnerships with technology companies and distributors such as Microsoft, Apple, Sony, Homechoice, NTL and Telewest.

“Both the BBC and Microsoft are ultimately looking for ways to empower our audiences; to put them in control, and in this we have an alignment of strategic objectives.”