Turning BT's Ribbit into a Prince of Openness

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The other day I wrote about BT's new open source site, and now here's another move to do with openness:

BT today announced it has acquired Ribbit Corporation, a Silicon Valley-based “Telco 2.0” platform company, for $105 million in cash, on a cash-free, debt-free basis. The acquisition will accelerate BT’s strategy to transform itself into a next- generation, platform-based, software-driven services company.

Based in Mountain View, California, Ribbit – “Silicon Valley’s First Phone Company” – provides an open platform which enables developers to create new and innovative voice applications and services by combining telephony and internet technologies in new ways.

JP Rangaswami, managing director of service design at BT, said: "Silicon Valley is emerging as a hotbed of telecommunications innovation. With Ribbit, not only do we extend our presence in the Valley, but we also gain a groundbreaking platform, a growing community of developers and a world-class team that share a common vision. Buying Ribbit lets us accelerate that vision.”

That sounds like a shrewd move, since BT is thereby inviting developers to plug directly into its new IP-based global network. And the basic idea of Ribbit – providing APIs to third-party developers in order to allow them to create new apps - is clearly a sensible approach. But it seems to me that BT is missing something here.

Given its new-found appreciation for open source, and its ambitious desire to make Ribbit the platform of choice for IP-based voice applications, wouldn't the obvious thing have been to make the platform fully open source? It's well established now that the fastest way to drive platform adoption is to throw it wide open, and let developers not only use it but also become partners in its evolution. BT has a unique opportunity to create a major global standard here, but it can only achieve that if it goes all the way: a halfway house kind of openness, while laudable in itself, will always be trumped by the real thing when it comes along – as it inevitably will.

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