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Saturday, July 16, 2005
Public service software manufacturer

Every year, each UK household with a television pays GBP126.50 to the BBC - the BBC tax - even if they don't watch BBC television, listen to BBC radio or visit BBC online. This revenue gives the BBC a tremendous competitive advantage over independent broadcasters and allows it to dominate the British media. In light of growing public dissatisfaction, the BBC continually portrays itself as a public service, embarking on projects too risky for the commercial sector but of benefit to the nation.

The latest example of this worthiness is the BBC's new Open Source website that outlines the broadcaster's contribution to the open source community and invites developers to contribute their own code to BBC-initiated and managed projects. These projects include the Dirac video codec, the Kamaelia testbed for network experimentation and modules for the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network, as well as a number of other projects related specifically to broadcasting technologies.

"For the BBC, open source software development is an extension of our Public Service remit," the broadcaster said. "Releasing open source software helps our audience get additional value from the work they've funded, and also get tools for free that they couldn't get any other way."

The website includes more warm words explaining that their Open Source policy is ultimately guided by "whatever gives the public the best value for their money". This sounds good for taxpayers, but it begs the question: should the BBC be expanding into Open Source programming and software development? The BBC dominates television and radio in the UK, it makes films and sells magazines - do we really want it to also be our main software developer?

The commercial sector has a much better track record of delivery what consumers want at a competitive price - this is why decrepit nationalised industries were privatised in the 1980s and why greater private provision of public services is being explored by politicians from all parties. Creating software is not an essential public service like defending our country is, so should the BBC - funded by taxpayers - be turning its hand to software?

Posted by Matthew Elliott | Permanent Link

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