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back to article Scoop! The inside story of the news website that saved the BBC

Fifteen years ago this month the BBC launched its News Online website. Developed internally with a skeleton team, the web service rapidly became the face of the BBC on the internet, and its biggest success story – winning four successive BAFTA awards. Remarkably, it operated at a third of the cost of rival commercial online news …

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Re: bonus tracks (tech speak alert)

Sorry Jude! I'm starting to realise that I have little memory of precisely who did what.

So whose was the 1-pixel-gif-stretching idea?

And, before i make another blunder, who got the all-time high-score at Pnickies?

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Re: bonus tracks (tech speak alert)

S'alright - I'm amazed you remember as much as you did - quite amazing really - this is my memory of that time:

Bob - boss man.

Mike - journalism stuff.

you - architecture

Matt Wood - WebObjects

Pete Lane - ASP

Sam/me - HTML

Matt Jones - design

... and together we built a website.

Pretty damn certain there were others involved as well, but I'm not good with names.

Beyond that it's mostly a blank. I remember lots of pressure, but I also remember a really great atmosphere. Still some of the most fun I've had working on anything.

I remember Bob had a habit of giving out sage bits of advice to us - he pulled me aside one day and said "Jude - if there's one bit of advice I'd give you, it's this: if you think something's shit, say it's shit". That has served me *so* well. The man's a genius.

The 1 pixel gif thing rings a bell, whether it was Sam or Pete or I - absolutely no idea!

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Reg-specific picture tags?

They don't seem to have done so many picture tags recently. They used to do lots, I reckon to see if they could get El Reg to follow up on them.

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Wonderful article and a bit of nostalgia for me!

Fantastic article! Thank you SO much! I was at the BBC World Service and ended up on the BBC News Online core team almost by accident. I was a small part of this wonderful web site and have fond (!) memories of installing this new-fangled thing called a "Web Browser" on various different department heads machines. Oh! the wonders of Netscape!

I'm not sure the article does complete justice in that, although small, the team ended up with a number of people co-opted from other departments to help out. I worked in the, miniscule, networking team at the World Service (we basically handled anything connected to a network including PCs, Macs, Micro-Vax, NetWare, Banyan Vines, routers, switches, thin-wire Ethernet... you get the point) and this proved enough of a qualification to "help out".

I left the BBC as I simply could not stand the politics. Department heads would routinely curse at me for daring to introduce them to the News Online system as if it would be the death of the BBC or praise me for finally helping to evolve the dinosaur. If I could feel the politics where I was I have no idea what it must have felt like at the sharp end.

Thank you again, I love this!

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BBC on the net before 1996

For the record, Brandon Butterworth did many important things during this period, but he did not create the BBC Networking Club, in fact he had nothing to do with it and didn't like it. I should know, I was involved in setting it up. In April 1994, the BBCNC put up the BBC's first Web pages in conjunction with a programme on BBC 2 called The Net. To the best of our knowledge this was a first anywhere in the world.

At that time, the Reith IP network in the BBC was the private domain of BBC engineers and jealously guarded by them. They had a 64kbps connection to the outside world and didn't want anyone else using it for fear it would use up their bandwidth. They never went anywhere near programme makers. So, when we set up the BBCNC as an initiative of BBC Education (as it was called at that time) we had to go outside the BBC to get server support from a small company called TECC, persuaded Pipex to expand their dial-up network, and lobby BT to get a 1Mbps line into their offices in time for the first episode on April 13th. We also had to battle with policy planning to persuade them that the Internet was a tool of the CIA and filled with porn (they had a point). I can remember going to see Brandon in an engineering building out in Acton somewhere, sitting in a darkened room, and having the strong impression that he didn't really want to help us at all. Anyway, we did start inviting him to meetings because BBC staff started wanting Internet access and were using the BBCNC dial up software to get connected, which was daft, so we were trying to help him put pressure on his bosses to expand their connection to the outside world and help BBC staff get access to the Internet directly. It wasn't easy. Meanwhile, we travelled all over the place, from BBC Wales to BBC Scotland, to the Worldservice, to Bush House and to BBC News -- I remember quite a few sessions with Mike Smartt. We were picking up work putting all sorts of very basic Web pages together for programmes, and from time to time doing specials like Radio 1's first Internet night in March 1995.

While doing this, we were constantly fighting off BBC Worldwidewho believed that that the only thing to do was a deal with Microsoft, which the McKinsey consultants involved were backing, and building a concensus that the BBC should consider the Internet a public communication channel, rather than a new commercial opportunity. That didn't stop a deal being done eventually with Fujitsu ICL which had doom written all over it from the start. But the BBCNC was canned to make way for this deal, on what turned out to be somewhat spurious grounds that we had crossed the line between public service and commercial interests, but there we go. The BBCNC team got merged into a BBC Multimedia Centre during 1996, which in turn got overtaken by BBC On-line.

Anyway, got that off my chest. As I say Brandon did a lot of important work, but it was the BBCNC that got him moving and the BBC's presence on the Internet into the sunshine, not the other way round, and no matter what his blog piece says!!!!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: BBC on the net before 1996

Like the article says, many try to take credit for others' work...

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(Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

Re: BBC on the net before 1996

Thanks for the comment. I've consulted with Andrew. The assertion that BBCNC was built by Brandon has been removed.

C.

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Happy

Re: BBC on the net before 1996

I agree and as I'm ex-TECC techie I know we were still doing stuff for the Beeb in '97 plus Carlton and Granada when I worked there. Also having worked for Beeb Internet ops in Maidenhead and with Matt K at ITV the rest of the article fills in some blanks for me. An enjoyable trip down memory lane.

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bbz

Re: BBC on the net before 1996

I never claimed to have done the BBCNC, some details didn't make it to the public blog but it is clear -

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2007/12/brandons_history_of_bbc_on_the_2.html

I didn't dislike the BBCNC, I did ask if it was a sensible use of money when others were providing dial up access, I suggested people just use Demon instead.

We needed to update the link we had and corporate didn't want to fund it, they were looking to establish a per user charge that lead to some departments choosing dial up instead. As we existed on what I could extract from other budgets my suggestion was to use the BBCNC money for that rather than pay to upgrade a 3rd party where we'd only get partial use of the capacity.

BBCNC did hold back the www.bbc.co.uk for a while as they nicked the content producers we were trying to have put their stuff on the main site, it all got sorted eventually.

Brandon

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Re: BBC on the net before 1996

It feels a little odd to be debating this BBCNC thing after all these years, but just a few points. It's hard to remember now, but in 1994 the Internet was something that the general public really didn't know anything about. Access was largely confined to the science and tech departments of universities, elite civil servants and industries like defence. At the start of 1994, Demon had less than two thousand dial-up subscribers who had geniune Internet access, unlike Compuserve or CIX (remember CIX?), and configuring your PC or Mac to use a dial-up TCP/IP/PPP connection was only really for the enthusiast. The BBCNC was an initiative of BBC Education and we considered it very much in the same light as the BBC B Micro project of a decade or so earlier. Our aim was to try and make real Internet connectivity really easy, and to be very Reithian in our mission to explain what it was all about. The initiative had various impacts -- We didn't go with Demon as our ISP (some people thought their name was scarey), but BBC rules meant we had to promote Demon equally on air, and their user base went through the roof and ended up making Cliff Sandford a very rich man just a year or two later. We got Pipex to bring forward their plans for a dial-up network by at least 18 months, and thereby really accelerated the take up of Internet services considerably in the UK. We gave The Guardian and CNN case studies which helped them put their own organisations on line a few months later. We persuaded someone called Ran Mokady to build Internet software for the Acorn, which we never ended up distributing, but which he ported to the Psion, started earning licensing fees, and eventually he also made a ton of money selling his company, STNC, to Microsoft because they wanted the IP to Psion's Internet suite. We also introduced the Web to many BBC people who had never seen it before, let alone the public, and got URLs promoted on radio and TV in a way that had never happened. Brandon talks about nicking content -- until we got BBC departments engaged, there wasn't any content to nick at all -- and there's another point that seems ridiculous now, the domain name bbc.co.uk was viewed with suspicion by quite a few inside and outside the BBC because of the .co 'commercial' tag. Would this be the thin end of the wedge? Which is why we went with a .org domain, and got some departments with a public service political spin on things to back us, when they were concerned by the Birtian revolution taking over the Beeb at that time. I can even remember we tried hard to get a bbc.uk domain, but got turned down by people at JANET (the UK's university network authority). Listen, these are all old stories which seem ante-diluvian now, but we were a small team of 20 somethings who were making it up as we went along, which the legions of consultants floating around the Beeb at the time wanted to control and were scared by because they didn't know what we would do next. Neither did we. We were about to be canned at one point, when I got hold of the client software from Progressive Networks (later Real Networks) before it was in the public domain directly from their office in San Francisco and spent our monthly hardware acquisition budget on a sound card for 25 quid, and on returning home to Goldhawk Rd we were the very first people outside Seattle to listen to an Internet streamed radio station from America. We then carried this tower PC around the BBC, having to stick fingers into the back of the thing to keep the mother board from rattling, showing live radio from the States. This was in April 1995. That was when the penny dropped that the Internet wasn't just Ceefax for nerds, and we got a stay of execution for a year. All this was eradicated from the BBC's Corporate memory when BBC On-line began because now they wanted to do things properly, which was fair enough. I guess all I am saying is that footnote given to BBCNC team deserves to highlighted sometimes. Jane Drabble, then Head of BBC Education, came out of a BBC Board Meeting at some point in May or June 1995 and told us we were changing the BBC, which felt good, but scarey at the time -- so scarey in fact, I left the BBC shortly afterwards because I felt I was being sucked into a political vortex I didn't have the maturity to manage. I gave a bunch of stuff to the BBC Archive, but I think most of got lost. But there is still some stuff in a box in the attic, which they aren't getting their hands on because I am proud of the contribution we, in our chaotic way, made.

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(Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

Re: Re: BBC on the net before 1996

Insightful comment!

Ran Mokady - wow, there's a name I haven't heard in a long time. He was listed in Acorn's RISC OS 3 easter egg of programmers who contributed to the OS, IIRC.

C.

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Unhappy

Great article!

It continuously evolves, improving every time. One long-awaited change I want, though is the change from 4/3 to 16/9 aspect ratio to get rid of the wasted space down each side of the screen. Perhaps its still 4/3 for ancient monitors but couldn't a bit of script read the aspect and squeeze to 4/3 if required?

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JDX
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Re: Great article!

With tablets, aren't we heading back to 4:3 a bit anyway?

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Re: Great article!

1. Not everyone has a 16:9 screen

2. Not everyone sees the need or has the desire for a 16:9 screen

3. 4:3 screens are not "ancient", they are still bought brand new.

4. The size/shape/layout of the BBC website bears little relation to the screen aspect ration. It's almost universally a fixed width when it really ought to be scalable to suit whatever size "window" the user happens to be using..

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Great article!

@John Brown (no body)

1. Just the vast majority

2. Well we now know at least one person who doesn't (actually I now know ONLY one person who doesn't)

3. In the third-world

4. I agree

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WTF?

Not aspect ratio

One long-awaited change I want, though is the change from 4/3 to 16/9 aspect ratio

It's not a question of aspect ratio, but of a page being able to rearrange its content to fill the width of the screen -- or rather of the browser window in which it is displayed. Unless you maximize your browser window the window you are using probably doesn't correspond exactly to either 4:3 or 16:9 anyway (or 5:4 or 16:10, or any other screen aspect ratio).

It's certainly nicer to use a page that dynamically sizes itself to fit the browser ... but achieving that relies on more than "a bit of script", requires that scripting is supported and enabled in the user's browser, requires some maintenance by the web programmers, and inevitably consumes some resources on the client device. The BBC clearly want their web content to be accessible to the largest possible audience so they adopt a simple solution that works quite well for most people.

Don't consider the space at the sides to be "wasted", rather consider it to be "available". You can reduce the width of your browser window and show other content alongside, or zoom in until the page fits the window.

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Re: aspect ratio

My Chrome window is 16:9ish sized and lives on a (recently manufactured Acer) 4:3 monitor (used in the UK) and I have no problem with the BBC layout.

Changing layout widths is a "bag o' hurt" and shouldn't be attempted on the fly. People read relatively narrow columns best. there's no point going for a full-width column of text on a 30" cinema display when you lose your place as you read the massively long lines of text. Best to make it readable on 1024x768 and slap on a sidebar for people with larger screens. Then if people still have mostly whitespace, at least they can still read the sane-width column easily at the cost of scrolling. Plus, why is a bit of whitespace a problem? The more you put in 'above the fold' the harder it becomes to find anything.

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The article that finally motivated me to sign-up

Just to say that this was a rollicking good read, and I think I've never seen an article here which drew so many of the main players into the comments. Excellent work.

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Total teamwork between technical, editorial and design

I think one of the reasons that the launch of BBC News Online went so well was that we created one team made up of technical, design and editorial. We worked together on every change. We supported one another. And as a journalist I was impressed that the technical team was determined to build the tools that the journalists could use. They watched us use them, listened to our problems, worked through the night to fix any issues we had, and in the morning had another version of the content management system ready for us to test. Often we worked through the night with them to speed the process up. I have not seen such close collaboration anywhere else. On a small matter, the quote about my involvement reporting on the train crash (mentioned on page three of the piece) is incorrect.

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Re: Total teamwork between technical, editorial and design

Sounds like Lean Kaizen to me.

Sometimes I think people are scared by the Japanese words and supermarkets blaming poor stock control (or irregular customer demand) on Lean, but it's really just common sense.

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BBC ISP

Back in the Freeserve-0845 days in the late 1990s, the world and its dog was getting on that particular bandwagon, and this included the BBC. I remember getting their ISP CD to setup a DUN for them. It was highly likely that it was a white-label product that they simply applied their brand to, but it also came with an email address on one of their domains. Does anyone else remember this?

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FAIL

BBC Networking club?

HAHAHAHAHA .... It was a decade late Shopping at Maplins .... Geez!

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BBC Win

BBC News Online is a wonderful success story (apart from the burnouts, I hope they're all getting better and that the bureaucracies the people involved were up against will be thinking long and hard about stripping things back so that people don't burn out trying to get something done before the bureaucrats get their hands on it).

I visit the BBC News website almost daily, though I think I read fewer articles than before. I think I have visited www.bbc.co.uk about 5 times in its existence (and I still lament news moving away from news.bbc.co.uk). The sport section used to be great, but the recent 'revamp' was poor. There's an unnecessary /0/ in the url, the theme is harsh on the eyes and makes navigation difficult*. Content production has also been scaled back, but at least the content that they still produce is OK.

* not a problem with the 'Metro' inspiration, since outlook.com actually has a shockingly good UI, better than gmail in my opinion, though not better enough to switch

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Anonymous Coward

Fairly biased article

Whilst it's true that Broadcast Online (BOL) were run in a pretty incompetent manor several times by different leaders over the years, the actual serving (You mention Brandon Butterworth) by Internet Services (IS) was significantly more stable and reliable than the horrific Microsoft orientated abomination that News Online (NOL) attempted to serve with for far too long.

They also paid a premium for their own bandwidth rather than using the cleverly UK peered and US transit assisted, internet connectivity that was pioneered by IS.

Ultimately NOL ended up working with IS and were making use of large parts of the UNIX based internet serving infrastructure after getting rid of the expensive MS based servers.

Referring to www.bbc.co.uk as an experiment is also incorrect, there were many established live and supported sites pre-dating BOL and NOL, e.g. BBC Nature (in Bristol), Eastenders/Soaps, Worldservice and several various other parts. I would agree that BOL insisting on taking centralised control was a pretty poor direction, but had it gone to news, every site would have looked dreadfully news-like and identical (an early limitation of the CMS) and due to NOL politics rather than common sense, probably been run on Windows, and thus unable to cope with more than a few thousand users at once.

There were massive technical deficiencies in NOL's infrastructure and earlier CMS that this article glosses over. I consider this article extremely biased and suspect it was authored by somebody only talking to somebody with NOL's opinion of what happened in the BBC's web service over the past 15 years.

(You can probably guess I worked in IS and clearly had little love for BOL or NOL).

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Re: Fairly biased article

You are right, I definitely got needlessly wrapped up in all sorts of petty squabbling and side-taking at the time.

I'd forgotten about those bloody Windows servers. The technology team at News was originally led by an ex-Microsoft guy, who was somewhat enthusiastic about his former employer's technology. The News International and Sky systems we left behind were all HPUX or Solaris. He left around the time of launch. The question for the team then, was where, in the long list of priorities, should we put the migration to more stable technology. As you so rightly point out, there were instabilities in the hastily built CMS, and many other problems.

First, was removing the MS replication system, as mentioned. Another tricky migration done long before the web servers, was from from Windows/MS-SQL to Solaris/Oracle. Oddly enough, I think it is precisely because web-serving was shared with IS from early on, that getting rid of the Windows servers was less important, than the database and other elements.

I don't think that anybody at News ever wanted to roll out the CMS to anyone else. However, after the success, senior executives kept suggesting it. The CMS did not intrinsically restrict the look and feel to any particular style: you will remember that the "text only" version was created with the same CMS.

The problem was that it used some complex publishing logic to cope with the fast-changing link dependencies of the News site - several thousand automated link changes a day. Learning about how to write the templates would have been expensive and pointless for other types of site. So, for instance, when the Olympics came along, it was decided to keep the templates which already existed, making it look suspiciously like the News site.

Whatever happened to the Capt Pugwash site? Another scandal.

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