BBC iPad App Popular In U.S., But Brits May Be Denied

The BBC may have postponed its planned mobile phone apps for regulatory scrutiny in its native UK – but, in the U.S., where the BBC operates commercially, its new iPad app is already a big hit.

Released in time for the tablet’s U.S. launch last weekend, the personalisable BBC News app offers text news in English and other languages, social sharing, story videos, 60-second video bulletins, full-screen video, live radio, breaking news alerts and offline syncing.

Already at #12 in iPad’s free apps chart, it rates 3.5/5 with users. Development was jointly funded by the UK BBC and by BBC Worldwide, which plans to sell ads on it outside Britain. Made by Mobile IQ, the same developer commissioned to make the iPhone apps, it offers a glimpse of the apps the BBC wants to launch in the UK – if only domestic authorities let it…

Brit apps blocked

At Mobile World Congress in February, the BBC announced three upcoming apps for iPhone, BlackBerry and Android. It had wanted to launch the BBC News app in April, the BBC Sport app in time for the soccer World Cup in June and the BBC iPlayer TV catch-up app later in the year…

But the UK’s eight leading news publishers, through their Newspaper Publishers Association, kicked up a fuss, arguing the BBC is a roadblock to them profiting from the nascent apps space, which is much more fertile ground for charging. They won an order from the regulating BBC Trust that the BBC should delay launching the apps while it examines the idea.

The BBC says it does not need Trust approval because the apps do not constitute a new service launch (they only repurpose content from its website). Indeed, the trust is not yet carrying out the full Public Value Test and Market Impact Assessment that would normally be applied to new service launches.

Overseas loophole

But, according to a BBC web page: “The U.S. iPad app is a commercial activity outside the UK and is not covered by the Trust review.” Hence, the upscaled tablet download was released in America before Britain. BBCWW also still plans to launch the iPhone apps overseas..

If the BBC is blocked from launching apps at home in the UK, it will mean the perverse spectacle of the British Broadcasting Corporation offering free iPhone and iPad editions only outside of Britain, whilst protecting worried commercial publishers’ ambitions to sell similar products to UK licence payers.

UK iPad plans…

For now, it’s a moot point – the iPad won’t be on sale in the UK until late April some time.

But iPad is caught up in the same scrutiny process as mobile, the Trust tells paidContent:UK: “We’ve asked the BBC to postpone the launch of all applications for smartphones etc in the UK, including the iPad, while we conduct our review. It’s a little too early to say exactly what our review will cover, though we would expect it to cover UK apps for iPads to some extent.”

The BBC’s embrace of iPad through the news app raises a tantalising probability – that the planned BBC iPlayer app for iPhone would also be converted for the tablet, bringing the popular VOD service’s full-screen catch-up TV to the new device in the same way ABC (NYSE: DIS) has done with its ABC Player.

But the BBC is refraining from staking out its domestic iPad credentials whilst under the regulator’s spotlight. “While the BBC Trust are carrying out their assessment, we have nothing further to add than is already in the public domain,” a spokesperson said.

It’s not clear whether the Trust will decide on the apps issue by the time iPad hits UK shelves. “We’re aiming to do so in a timely manner to provide clarity for everyone involved,” the Trust spokesperson says.

“All costs associated with the international version have been fully funded by BBCWW,” the BBC spokesperson says. But the iPlayer app is unlikely to be released outside the UK, since it offers catch-up TV according to domestic rights restrictions only.

See Martin Goode’s video demo