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Will the BBC's IPhone app help or hurt rivals?

It's all perfectly clear now. Having spent, er, a few minutes watching C4’s Jo Frost: Extreme Parental Guidance, I can finally resolve my inner conflict over the BBC between celebrating its brilliance and damning its infuriating stupidity. The BBC is merely an errant child, badly reared and will persist in pushing at boundaries and testing our love until we are firm and invoke time out and/or a naughty step.

For 50 years commercial broadcasters have complained of BBC market interventions performed with the security of public funding in the name of innovation. Much of this has been condemned as whinging and most of it has been ineffective. The BBC has a website, two children’s channels, many music radio stations and a clutch of magazines, irrespective of years of doubtless very costly lobbying.

So what to make now of the corporation’s ventures in three news and sport apps for the iPhone – and in time other smart phones as well? A whole new front has opened up in the ‘be everywhere’ strategy and now Mark Thompson’s tanks are firmly on newspapers’ lawns. Either business model the BBC might have embraced can be described as damaging the already wounded press. Paid for? Well that’s charging licence fee payers twice and sucking up cash that might be spent on other news apps (the Guardian’s is just £2.39! Available now!). Free? Well we’re back to the website argument run by James Murdoch et al. They can't charge while the BBC is there spewing out news for nothing.

This dance has to be danced and, as with every other expansion the BBC has made into new territory, limits (thank you Jo) must be set; ideally in advance. We don’t want another Lonely Planet. But they should be of the ‘no telly on a school night’ variety rather than the total screen ban for under 18s.

The Guardian spent a long time developing its iPhone app. It’s the best in its (otherwise free) market and the talented team have proudly sold 100,000 units in just over two months. I’ll be interested, if not gripped, to see what impact the BBC’s app has. But I stick to the belief that it will neither destroy nor worsen our offering. The Guardian’s app proved people would pay for quality news delivered to mobile with brilliant functionality. We will simply have to keep innovating.

Janine Gibson is editor of

Posted 09 March 2010 by Janine Gibson
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