The BBC and Microsoft have signed a non-exclusive memorandum of understanding to explore opportunities for the delivery and consumption of BBC content and the evolution of next-generation broadcasting.

During a ‘fact-finding tour’ of the United States, Mark Thompson, the BBC director general and Ashley Highfield, director of new media and technology, met Microsoft chairman Bill Gates in Seattle to discuss the digital strategy for the public service corporation.

“The learnings from our US visit will very much inform our thinking on the BBC’s creative future,” said Ashley Highfield. This includes plans for an online archive and a radically re-invented website.

In March the BBC director of new media and technology, soon to be known as future media technology, shared a stage with the Microsoft chairman. At the time Bill Gates said: “We’re going to do everything we can to help you”.

The BBC director general explained in a statement: “To ensure that the BBC is able to embrace the creative challenges of the digital future, we need to forge strategic partnerships with technology companies and distributors for the benefit of licence payers.”

“Microsoft’s strength is in driving digital innovation, and our vision is to open up rich, new consumer experiences that allow people to enjoy digital content anytime, anywhere and on any device,” said Bill Gates. “This vision fits squarely with the BBC’s charter to lead the industry in delivering content that is compelling and accessible. I’m delighted that we’re taking this important step, and I look forward to working together to develop new models for content delivery and consumption.”

The memorandum of understanding aims to identify areas of common interest between the BBC and Microsoft on which a strategic alliance could be developed. Any actual procurements of new technology, or launch of new services by the BBC, would be subject to appropriate regulatory approval.

The announcement comes as the BBC governors consider formal approval for plans to launch its iPlayer online audio and video player, which is currently the subject of a market impact assessment being conducted by the communications regulator Ofcom. Interested parties have been invited to submit their views as part of an industry consultation.

The software company has secured the confidence of many media organizations through its digital rights management system. That confidence was somewhat shaken by recent news that its copy protection could be easily circumvented by an application that had been published on the web. This prompted satellite broadcaster BSkyB to temporarily suspend its movie download service.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has announced a digital media player and online service called Zune to compete with Apple iTunes. The company is also preparing a video sharing site to rival services such as YouTube.

The increasingly close relationship of the BBC to Microsoft will no doubt come under scrutiny and possible criticism from other operators. Some may see it as adopting an leadership role that will help create a new market for digital distribution. Others may view it as endorsing a proprietary platform and potentially distorting the market rather than using a leadership position to drive open standards.