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BBC online chief urges publishers to focus on functionality

Ashley Highfield at AOP Summit 2005
Speaking at the AOP Online Publishing Conference 2005 on Friday 7 October, director of new media and technology for the BBC, Ashley Highfield claimed that a fundamental shift in mindset is needed if major media organisations are to flourish in the digital age.

“I think the major determinant of success or failure in the converged world is how we respond to the increased rate of adoption of new technologies, and predicting when these will reach critical mass,” he said.

“While predicting the ubiquity of broadband is a no-brainer, the trick with new technology is getting the timing of your investment right. In fact the real trick is to accurately judge both the timing of a new technology, and the timing of its impact on the existing ones. Convergence is about coexistence of old and new.”

The conference, themed ‘Content matters’, aimed to explore the challenges online publishers must be aware of to win the battle for engagement with users.

Highfield, however, argued that those media owners who think that having great content alone will win the day for them are wrong: “Content is not necessarily king. Or at least, not sole ruler. We think that providing an excellent, relevant range of content will on its own win out. We’re wrong. I see a triumvirate. Three pillars on which successful services of the future must be based: content, quality and functionality.”

Highfield cited Google, Amazon, Yahoo and Ebay as new companies whose success has been founded on the third pillar of functionality. “If we don’t want to be disintermediated by these players we must be experts in the field of functionality as well,” he said.

Highfield challenged the delegates as to whether technology, as well as content, had enough of a focus within their own companies, admitting that focusing on technology had been a major shift for the BBC. He added that the BBC’s much-vaunted Interactive Media Player is but the tip of the iceberg. The real impact will come when the BBC opens up its archives.

The BBC new media chief predicted that in the future, broadcasters and publishers might actually be better off creating less content, rather than more. “With archives available on demand, and the net awash with user-generated content, we’ll have to focus funds on high profile, excellent content, just to punch through.”

Highfield was joined on the panel by Andrew Taylor, managing director of Channel 4 New Media, Jean-Paul Edwards, head of media futures for Manning Gottlieb OMD, and Philip Smith, editor of Media Week.

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