As CEO of Osmosoft, the open source wiki software company that was acquired by BT in 2007, it is Jeremy Ruston’s job to promote understanding and adoption of the open source model within the telecommunications and IT services giant.
But Ruston’s own open source conversion happened quite by accident. Having left his post as head of ecommerce at investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort in 2000, after which he served as CTO of a pair of failed dot-coms, Ruston decided to start a company of his own.
“I started out as someone whose model for making money from software was a very traditional, investment-led business model,” he recalls.
Interested in how to make wikis easier to administrate, Ruston put together a simple demo of wiki software that executed mainly in the browser – which he dubbed TiddlyWiki – to attract the interest of potential investors.
After he put TiddlyWiki online, however, Ruston was overwhelmed by the response he received from fellow developers. “In the space of three or four days, it was getting 10,000 hits a day,” he says.
That positive response soon turned into demands for further development.
“Although I was treating it as a demo, people were asking, ‘Why doesn’t it work properly?’” explains Ruston. “So I spent the next six months developing TiddlyWiki until it could be used to solve real problems, with a certain amount of feedback and help from this community that had built up around the project.”
This experience of community-driven development was an epiphany for Ruston. The value of open source development, he now argues, is the ability to involve as many individuals as possible, operating in a relatively autonomous fashion.
“In the heart of any open source project there is a circle of copying, modifying and sharing, all of which takes place without having to go through a central process,” he explains. “That is what drives the diversity of ideas.”
And it is not always the actual code contributions that participants in this process make that are of greatest value, he explains, so much as what those contributions say about the project.
“In the vast majority of cases, the contributions are not in themselves useful as code but as a signal of a requirement.”
This process is a more effective way to divine requirements than simply asking people what they want.
“If you ask people what they want, the requirements they give you have no bearing on their future behaviour,” he argues. “Like signals in nature, it is only the signals that cost something that count.”
Open source at BT
It came as a surprise to many when BT, a company not commonly associated with the bleeding edge, acquired Osmosoft, the consulting company Ruston built around TiddlyWiki.
But, he says, support for open source came from senior executives, including his former Dresdner colleague JP Rangaswami, now managing director of BT’s Design division.
Ruston and his Osmosoft team continue to work on TiddlyWiki within BT, but with the ulterior motive of cultivating the open source ethos within the company.
BT now often adopts open source software, according to a simple pyramid rule.
“The bottom slice is commodity software; that should be open sourced,” he explains. “The middle slice is software that is unique to our industry; it is best to get that from a proprietary vendor, although they may themselves use open source code. The very top minitriangle consists of things that are unique to us, and that’s what we build for ourselves.”
That BT developers are now helping to build communal projects has not come easily for a company that sees intellectual property as a revenue earner.
And it is not without its dangers: Ruston oversees an open source quality control programme that monitors these developers.
“The big risk is not that it will be poor quality,” he explains, “but that it will include someone else’s proprietary code.”
But open source does not stop with software, says Ruston. “Some of the things that apply to communities around software could happen around networks,” he says.
By allowing third parties greater access to the workings of its networking platform, BT could develop what he describes as “a radically different partner engagement model”.