Building the BT Open Source Business Case

03Jan08

The Osmosoft team recently made a pilgrimage to Paris in order to support BT and JP Rangaswami’s presence at Le Web 3. Both Phil Whitehouse and Phil Hawksworth from our Osmosoft team have done a great job of covering the event on their respective blogs, so no need for another recap. Rather, I wanted to touch on a topic that came up a number of times as I was manning the BT and Osmosoft booth with the rest of the team; the reason behind BT’s open source initiative.

About two-thirds of the conference attendees who came by our booth had previously heard about BT as the traditional telecom provider in the UK, and some even knew we had a global arm that provided communication services all over the world. But what intrigued most everyone that stopped by was the reasoning behind BT’s support of open source and Osmosoft. What was the business case? Why invest into an area that had a questionable ROI? How does open source fit into BT? While the team had prepared a bit for answering questions from Le Web 3 attendees, most of the preparation centered around RippleRap, our social note-taking product that was launched at the conference, and less on our corporate strategy.

So what is our strategy then? Well, here’s my take. BT recognizes and anticipates open source solutions playing a much bigger role in the enterprise space in the very near future, thus the investment in Osmosoft. Our size and breadth (100,000+ employees around the world) allows us to implement today’s solutions that take advantage of software from Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, and tons of other major players but also at the same time to put an investment in ensuring we learn and experience when/where open source is the optimal solution for our us, our customers, and our partners. And rather than just being another research team, we’re taking a hand’s on approach with producing a product (RippleRap) through the engagement of an open source project (TiddlyWiki).

While TiddlyWiki is just one project, our small team is serving not only as a successful example, but also to show other BT teams how to add expertise in certain open source solutions (potentially enterprise email, collaboration platforms, etc.) to their list of proprietary offerings. We’re already working closely with our Global Services colleagues to expand revenue opportunities with a couple existing customers. I haven’t mentioned other traditional reasons for adopting open source such as reduced vendor lock-in, software as a service (SaaS), and so on, but as I gain hands-on experience in those areas, I will update as appropriate. The ROI is less straightforward than I was hoping, but calculating ROI’s have always been a bit of a black art anyways, so I won’t fret too much ;-).

For the large majority of attendees, my explanation made sense and they usually left with a new appreciation for what BT and the Osmosoft team are trying to accomplish in the open source space. There were still a few people unconvinced, but as I and the rest of the team gain more experience with open source software, projects and communities, I hope to strengthen our business case to a point where it’s bit more robust than my babbling above. I’m really looking forward to diving deeper into this world.

(image above from Hugh MacLeod’s genius)

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5 Responses to “Building the BT Open Source Business Case”

  1. Great post! There’s another area where I think greater experience will come in helpful, and that’s in our external communication.

    With our daily exposure to open source it’s easy to forget just how foreign a concept this is for many people. At Le Web, I found one of the biggest challenges was gauging people’s technical competence and understanding (not to mention their English speaking capabilities), and then tailoring my talk to suit. I was definitely better at the end of the two days than at the start, and heaven knows there’s still heaps of room for improvement! And as we get better at describing what we do, it will become more impactful and hopefully help us meet our objectives.

  2. 2 FND

    Thank you very much for this, James!
    Now I’ll have a bit of an easier time explaining to family and friends what it is that I’ll be doing at Osmosoft Towers, and why.
    The problem, of course, is that there’s no clear “I’m an engineer; I build airplanes” kind of answer in this line of work…

    With regards to the “not another research team” part, would it be fair to classify Osmosoft as something of an “applied think tank”?
    That might make people understand (and accept) the inherent blurriness of these issues.

  3. How would you explain this now? And I wonder how the case for BT compares with that for other companies with experience of Open Source, such as IBM or perhaps Sun. Has that been something you have come across?

  4. 4 dr1ft3r

    James M – Since the acquisition of MySQL by Sun and the large investment into Automattic (WordPress), large-ish valuations of open source projects and companies have arisen. This affects the Osmosoft team only slightly that it increases the ‘book value’ of the acquisiton asset (Osmosoft) to BT, but not necessarily our overall business case. Our goals are still to help shepard BT into the open source community and creating an environment that allows the solutions we (BT) develop/sell/utilize to be whatever is the best for that problem/customer whether it be closed-source or open source. We’ve made a lot of inroads with the technical community within BT in the past year, but there’s still a long ways to go…


  1. 1 My First TiddlyWiki Application « James Shi’s musings about everything and nothing…

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