Former Microsoft man becomes new head of BBC tech

There’s a new digital sheriff at the BBC today. What will Erik Huggers bring to the iPlayer party?

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It might not make the six o'clock news, but big things are happening at the BBC: from today, former Microsoft man Erik Huggers becomes director of future media and technology, making him one of the most powerful men in digital media. Meanwhile Huggers' former boss, Ashley Highfield, is already working on the broadband TV Project Kangaroo, a partnership between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

In his eight years at the Beeb Highfield oversaw massive changes that boosted BBC.co.uk traffic to over 18 million visitors per month, opened up archive material for ordinary punters to muck about with, and launched a little application called iPlayer. You may have heard of it. With Project Kangaroo, Highfield will continue to push his vision of "a 100% digital Britain", negotiating with broadcasters and distributors to find new ways to deliver online video. The aim is "to do for broadband what Freeview did for digital TV".

Massive budget

Back at the Beeb, Huggers will have his hands full. The 2008/09 budget for BBC.co.uk alone is £114.4 million, and his role puts him in charge not just of the BBC website, but of all the corporation's internet, mobile, interactive and broadband services. It also gives him the awkward job of finding a solution to the iPlayer problem, where ISPs want the BBC to pay for the extra demand iPlayer users put on their networks.

So how did Huggers end up at the BBC? After nine years at Microsoft, running Windows Media in Europe and working closely with big-name entertainment firms, he realised that his real passion wasn't the technology that entertainment firms were using; it was the stuff they could do with it. He briefly considered moving to the film industry, but felt they weren't fully ready to embrace the internet. Then the BBC came a-knocking. "It dawned on me that there was probably no better organisation on the planet to truly drive innovation…" he writes on the BBC Internet Blog. He didn't come alone, though: he brought Jon Billings from Windows Media to join the iPlayer team and former MSN developer Anthony Rose to become the Beeb's head of digital media technology.

What about open source?

Huggers was instrumental in the roll-out of iPlayer and its arrival on platforms including the iPhone, the Wii and Virgin cable TV. iPlayer 2.0 takes this process further, offering not just useful personalisation options and RSS feeds but a brand new platform (and delivery network) that can easily adapt to a range of different devices.

Inevitably, some open source advocates will be choking on their muesli. A former Microsoft man in charge of Auntie Beeb's digital service? But those grumblings are nothing new. This time last year the Free Software Foundation picketed BBC offices, claiming that Huggers' BBC role meant that "They have given Microsoft complete control". In a blog post, Huggers responded: "My loyalties are to the BBC and the BBC alone. I will only make decisions that are in the best interests of the licence fee payer. My actions will speak louder than words." He seems to mean it, too: in June he was mucking about with Linux laptops and promising the faithful that "We want to make iPlayer work on all operating systems including open source ones".

And that's not all. Speaking at the FutureMedia conference in December, Huggers spoke of his plans to embrace social networking. "One of the core principles we, at the BBC, are embracing is ultimately – the user is going to become our number one distributor. Users are going to find fantastic stuff, they're going to play with it and share it." Stay tuned.