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 …

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  1. EddieD

    Definitely a success

    There are a vast number of reasons you could slag the BBC, but news.bbc.co.uk, or its equivalent, has been my homepage on every system - even my mobile - for well over a decade.

    Simple design, easy to navigate, not too loaded with scripts.

    Now, if they could only extend the HTML5 video to encompass more devices, I'd be very happy

    1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

      Pity about the castratos

      I despise the BBC.

      Listening to the World Service a few days back (World Have Your Say) I was surprise how eagerly the presenters cut off everyone who made a valid point about the atrocities in a recently recurring war in Africa.

      None the less it was a superior article from the Register.

      Looking at the design of the website's early offerngs I wonder if the Reg is considering doing an Apple Jobbie?

    2. Steve Foster

      Re: Definitely a success

      "not too loaded with scripts."

      That used to be the case, but is less and less true as time goes on.

      These days, they seem to have lost that focus, and gone rather "widgetty" (distracting, IME). I've even resorted to writing some userJS for Opera to kill off the most annoying excesses (now, if I can just figure out how to kill their animated-images-that-aren't-animated mini-slideshow thing...)

      1. mike2R

        Re: Definitely a success

        If you are talking about what I think you are by mini-slideshow thing, try this in a user style sheet:

        div.list-wrapper {

        display: none;

        }

        1. Steve Foster

          Re: Definitely a success

          It's when they make the image for the Top Story animated, with Play/Pause and < & > buttons. Fortunately, they don't do it too often, but I shall try out your CSS next time they use it.

          1. mike2R

            Re: Definitely a success

            Ah, probably something different then. The CSS gets rid of the Watch/Listen and In Pictures sections.

            The principle is the same though, since the BBC seems to have a nice html structure and lots of class names. When you see the bit you want to eliminate view source, find the containing div or whatever of the thing you want gone, and set it to display:none. If it isn't nicely named you can probably kludge something with child selectors.

            1. Steve Foster

              Re: Definitely a success

              Here's my userJS:

              <pre>

              // @include http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/*

              function squashDiv(name) {

              var tmpDiv = document.getElementById(name);

              if ( tmpDiv ) { tmpDiv.outerHTML = '' };

              }

              window.addEventListener(

              'load',

              function () {

              window.gloader=null;

              squashDiv('geo-uk-digest');

              squashDiv('programmes-promotion');

              squashDiv('av-best');

              squashDiv('sport');

              squashDiv('democracy-live');

              squashDiv('special-event-promotion-best-include');

              squashDiv('correspondent-strapline');

              }, false

              );

              </pre>

              Possibly not as neat as just hiding the DIVs, but certainly effective.

          2. Chris 3

            Re: Definitely a success

            They don;t do it often, and when they do it, I find that it's warranted.

      2. JDX Gold badge

        That used to be the case, but is less and less true as time goes on.

        It's almost like the internet itself is changing over time or something!

        It's a tough line to walk between "it was good enough for 1999, why change it" and change for change's sake... it's important to remember old sites weren't static and simple because it was considered better, but because connection speeds and browsers back then couldn't handle anything more!

        1. Dave Bell

          Re: That used to be the case, but is less and less true as time goes on.

          This is one reason why there are special "mobile" sites: not just the small screens but the data costs.

    3. ian 22

      Re: Definitely a success

      Lord Birt? Surely he deserves to be catapulted into royalty? Prince Birt perhaps.

  2. Anonymous IV
    Thumb Up

    Fascinating article

    Bienly fait, Andrew!

  3. Conrad Longmore
    Thumb Up

    One advantage in not having advertising..

    One advantage in not having advertising is that you can make a really clean looking site without having to squeeze in banner ads and crap. That's one of the things that made the BBC News site look very clean right from the beginning. And the same design principles are in place today.

    Talking about El Reg, a little visit to the Wayback machine shows how the design was settled back in 1998 and still works today (see http://web.archive.org/web/19981206084318/http://www.theregister.co.uk/). Some of those headlines have familiar echoes today as well..

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: One advantage in not having advertising..

      You'd think wouldn't you? The same design principles certainly AREN'T in place today because the BBC News site has ads all over it outside the UK, and the UK site is designed to accommodate that.

      On topic, nice to see John Birt whitewash the whole beeb.com episode; the falling out with ICL was a lot nastier than that at the time; Jeremy Mayhew was indeed the "saviour" from Birt's perspective because the contract with ICL gave him just enough wiggle room to renege on the deal (damn thing was longer than War & Peace).

    2. Mage Silver badge

      Re: One advantage in not having advertising..

      At some stage someone decided people not in UK would get a different landing page and adverts. Both ones disguised as articles (Travel?) and an un-skipable advert at the start of every video.

      I never watch the videos any more.

      1. The Indomitable Gall

        Ads before vids...

        Yup, annoys the hell out of me here when I go to watch a 30-second video and get forced to watch a 1-minute advert first.

        Of course, that's exactly the same reason why I never watched the ITN channel in MSN video back when I was living in the UK, so it's hardly specific to the BBC....

  4. JeeBee
    Thumb Up

    Good article, a story of doers, talkers and neggers. The BBC News website is one of the BBC's crown jewels, and that's because it's remained simple, consistent and reliable since it was launched.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fascinating, but very sad ..

    When the twin towers were hit, I immediately phoned my brother, who works in the US to make sure he was OK. I asked what the latest was, assuming he would have access to more up to date current news. He said I would get the latest from the BBC as that was what everyone in his office used for the news.

    1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

      Reasonably, 9/11 had the BBC web site inaccessibly slow or crashed.

      We couldn't get BBC news pages, so I got the news on Ananova instead that day. Not as authoritative-feeling although apparently it was PA, but adequate in a hurry. And, on that occasion, evidently not as busy. Taken over by Orange - the phone company of that name - and gradually digested, in a metabolic rather than n

      editorial sense.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ananova

    2. ThomH Silver badge

      Re: Fascinating, but very sad ..

      Being temporarily in the US, I was at thanksgiving last week and heard much the same thing — having tried a couple of more local sources first, both of the people I was talking to ended up following the BBC's web coverage that day due to a combination of quality and accessibility.

  6. Ol'Peculier
    Thumb Up

    Very, very interesting article. Thank you.

  7. IHateWearingATie
    Thumb Up

    Well done chaps..

    ... fascinating article.

    More of this type of thing please

    1. Chad H.

      Indeed

      I'm really enjoying the recent Retrospective pieces - OS/2, the Laptop, etc. More please.

  8. Jim Carter
    Thumb Up

    A fascinating read

    The BBC news website, much like Eddie's, is the homepage on all my devices too. The design principles have informed my own to this day- clean, simple, and no needless crap. Content is indeed king there, and long may it continue.

    1. deshepherd

      Re: A fascinating read

      Used to be my main news source ... but a few years ago they forked the website to supply different versions to "UK" and "non-UK" users and, although I'm in the UK my companies WAN has its internet gateway in Switzerland so I can't see the "UK" version at work and as a result I switched to the Guardian as primary news site.

      1. Lonesome Twin
        FAIL

        Re: A fascinating read

        Your default BBC alternative is The Grauniad? Shurely not, who'd have thought

        1. Mayhem

          Re: A fascinating read

          Well, it has the advantage of being of known bias, so you can apply your own mental corrections.

          It also tends to cover things in a bit better detail than the other free UK new sites.

          And the occasional howling errors are entertaining.

          (I had the same problem with our internet portal being in Italy)

      2. captain veg

        Re: A fascinating read

        Exactly same here. Stopped buying the paper version of the Graun at about the same time too, so not exactly a win-win for them.

        -A.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Holmes

    No shit

    It felt like the kind of medium you'd use to send academic papers to a foreign university

    If only the fathers of the Internet had the same foresight as Mr Birt.

    1. Androgynous Crackwhore
      Headmaster

      Re: No shit

      If only the fathers of the Internet had the same foresight as Mr Birt.

      Hindsight, surely, in Mr Birt's case?

      Anyway, I'm sure he knew exactly what the web was, where it came from and hence why it looked so bland:

      It felt like the kind of medium you'd use to send academic papers to a foreign university

  10. TeeCee Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    That's the way to do it.

    "....he gave the order to proceed with a news website without the ministry’s permission to do so...."

    Ah yes. The good old JFDI project methodology. Funny how most really good work tends to have that one behind it.

    I suspect this may be something to do with the fact that tying up your best people in interminable meetings, to justify what you're doing to chair-polishing twats with their own agendas, is counter-productive.

  11. Winkypop Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Need to check a story?

    Head over to BBC news online.

  12. Imran Chaudhry
    Thumb Up

    Excellent article and a big thumbs up to the BBC News online staff.

    I remember around year 2000 being out of work for a few months, I was on dial-up and used to read the BBC News website every day. The website stood out because it was miles better designed that others at the time - clean, functional and quick to download over dial-up. I used to connect, download a bunch of pages then disconnect to save money. Now I realize the back-end was ahead of it's time and as a web developer/sysadmin myself elements of the design seem obvious now.

    I tip my hat to you guys!

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Changed for the worse

    The BBC news website was my main source for many years. Then just over two years ago they changed the format to have poor font contrast and a wider column. This made reading very difficult. The content had also lost its "real" news focus. Many people complained and were met by a response that was basically "like it or leave it".

    So I switched to Yahoo News - and subsequently added the Telegraph, Grauniad, Indie, and El Reg. A handful of visits since then suggest the BBC news site hasn't improved.

    1. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

      Re: Changed for the worse

      "What he said"; my feelings entirely.

      The BBC home page formatting became inconvenient for me while the content got leaner and weaker. I deserted to Google News and rarely go to BBC News. Mind you, BBC News is still infinitely better than ITN and C4 on-line offerings IMO, and the BBC is where I go or ping to check the internet is working!

      For the news feed it's Google news as a portal and I tend to find myself preferring the Guardian and Telegraph for style and content but I've no idea what their home pages look like. If it's home page style and usability I were voting on; El Reg would be the clear winner.

  14. sugnation
    Thumb Up

    Great article

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I had the pleasure of working for Matt Karas at the spinoff mentioned in the article and he was an amazing talent. He occasionally talked about this period but as we were all extremely busy I had never really had the chance to digest it properly and put it all into context. Thank you Andrew.

  15. James Pickett

    You're on a roll lately, Mr O!

    Still not sure about John Birt - for an engineer, he used an awful lot of management-speak, but your article has brought him up a notch in my estimation.

  16. Sparky65

    Great article

    I was in the editorial launch team after being recruited in mid-1997 and your article absolutely nails the "can do, must do, will do" spirit that prevailed. When I talk about those pioneering days, I say that we got the site up and running "in spite of" rather than "because of" the rest of the BBC (slightly tongue in cheek).

    I was very fortunate to be asked to lead the editorial development of the UK parts of the site, starting with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1999 then England in 2001. The "Klondike" spirit continued and we battered on but as the site became ubiquitous in online journalism, the processes around getting things done increased.

    One name missing from your piece is Pete Clifton, one-time editor of Ceefax who joined the news website and was asked to lead the sport website launch.

    At risk of sounding clichéd, those were indeed the days.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    My taste of Britain in a foreign field

    Or, err, something like that. Since leaving UK about 8 years ago, I am decreasingly homesick for the place and its issues. However I get my daily fix: The BBC News website. I often shout at it (why can't some of the writers learn English? Why can't the headline writers make sense? Have they banned hyphens in some pc dumbing-down movement?) but I can't let it go.

    Fascinating piece of history. Kudos to those involved, and to Andrew and the Reg for bringing us the story.

    1. The Indomitable Gall

      Hyphenation

      Hyphens haven't been "banned", people have just started giving sensible advice about when to use them. A compound term can be pronounced as one word, two words, or something in between. If it was pronounced as one word, it would be "dumbingdown". If it was pronounced as one-and-a-half, it would be "dumbing-down". But it's pronounced as two clear, distinct words, so it's "dumbing down".

      There was a period of "hyphen escalation", where the policy was "if in doubt, hyphenate", but it was never "correct" per se.

  18. Robin
    Happy

    Great Article

    Up with this sort of thing!

    Careful now.

  19. Mage Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Just Right

    Today there’s a mini-industry urging journalists to "learn to code", but Mike Smartt thought that was an unforgivable a distraction. “No coding was necessary – in fact, the use of HTML by writers became a sackable offence,” he recalled.

  20. Parax

    Boston Business Computers

    All very interesting, but I need to know how much bbc.com cost the BBC? Back in the day it was the site for boston business computers.

    (hey Andrew why no #BestBitsCensored? )

    1. Matthew Karas

      Re: Boston Business Computers

      I think it was actually the Boston Brick Company.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Boston Business Computers

        I'm certain it was Boston Business Computers, horrible site with too much pink and cyan.

        anyway more on both points from El Reg here and at 1/3 of a million I think it was a bit of a bargain considering it could have been ransomed for much more.

  21. Matthew Karas

    bonus tracks (tech speak alert)

    After reading this, it occurred to me that I should have name-checked more people when I was interviewed. It was an incredible team, so here are a few more tales.

    One of Jason Birch's many contributions was the said "FTP script" which replaced MS Replication Server. It wasn't so much a script as a highly scalable, fault-tolerant replication system (written in 36 hours), a direct descendent of which is probably still running today.

    Matthew Wood was the chap who turned us all on to WebObjects. Convincing me really took some doing, because we didn't have the server muscle to use it in its intended dynamic mode. Instead, we wrote a system to capture dynamically published pages as files, then push them out. This was fantastically cheap, because Apple's licences were based on the number of simultaneous connections to the server. Using dynamic serving, there would have been thousands of connections. Using our system, there were only six.

    Antony Tittle had the thankless task of dealing with the sports, weather and financial feeds. All the providers would make unannounced and undocumented changes to their formats, usually during the wee small hours of a New Year's morning. Ant would remotely log in and tweak the parsers, probably without putting down his pint.

    Our original sys admin, Chris Hughes, personally attended every server crash within minutes, day or night, with a level of discipline which almost compensated for the anarchy reigning throughout the dev team. His first move was to eliminate novelty server names. He was also the only person who shared Jason's surprising taste for European dance music - Encore Une Fois!

    1. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: bonus tracks (tech speak alert)

      Thanks Matt - we should link to this inline.

      1. Matthew Karas

        Re: bonus tracks (tech speak alert)

        Pete Lane was another superstar. He had actually interviewed me for my job at Delphi, when he was just 18, and had realised that they needed experienced software engineers as well as HTML experts. He was one of the BBC News Online launch team, and did almost all the client-side code single-handed for the first year or so. We signed off on the Lambie-Nairn design without consulting him or any HTML expert as to whether they were even possible. The only way he could do the skinny black lines was by stretching a one-pixel square gif in a table cell. There was no other way to get a line that thin. I think he was simultaneously proud and ashamed - proud of his ingenuity but ashamed of trampling on HTML best practice.

        1. dotcode

          Re: bonus tracks (tech speak alert)

          Oi, Karas! The wonderful Pete Lane did the ASP (and some client-side work). Sam Urquhart and I did the HTML, innit. How can you forget us?! My heart bleeds.

          ;)

          1. Matthew Karas

            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?

            1. dotcode

              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!

    2. CreosoteChris

      Re: bonus tracks (tech speak alert)

      Chris Hughes here - props to Matt for his comments, and to Andrew for writing the excellent article - it certainly gives a true impression of the febrile atmosphere in that newsroom.....

      ....but as I remember it, my first priority was to rationalise the infrastructure features of the Windows network there. I arrived to find a setup where the DCs, DNS servers, DHCP nodes, and other critical-path (like SQL Server) resources were the same 2 or 3 machines. The journalists' Win95 workstations were becoming unresponsive many times a day - it was messy.

      The first thing I did was to reconfigure those resources in a rational way, spreading the various server roles around the network to eliminate SPOFs, maximise resilience, and make the whole thing hang together as a coherent, best-practice, distributed setup......

      ....and then the journalists were able to get busy, and the real work started. After that, it got really manic.

      Regards Chris

      PS - "Bob Eggington" made my favourite boss-anagram ever... "No gent, big gob" - a bit harsh, but Bob took it the right way - we had important stuff to do, and in the right circumstances, a little humour lubricates the big machine.....

  22. Matthew 3

    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.

  23. Jason 6
    Thumb Up

    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!

  24. jellison

    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!!!!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: BBC on the net before 1996

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

    2. diodesign (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.

    3. Mjones
      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.

    4. 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

      1. jellison

        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.

        1. diodesign (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.

  25. The answer is 42
    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?

    1. JDX Gold badge

      Re: Great article!

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

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      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..

      1. Anonymous Coward
        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

    3. dajames Silver badge
      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.

    4. John 62

      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.

  26. This post has been deleted by its author

  27. Benjol
    Thumb Up

    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.

  28. David Brewer

    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.

    1. John 62
      Thumb Up

      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.

  29. Richard 45

    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?

  30. Brian 39
    FAIL

    BBC Networking club?

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

  31. John 62

    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

  32. Anonymous Coward
    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).

    1. Matthew Karas

      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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