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BT software engineer tells how the telco is using open source

Interview Jeremy Ruston talks about Tiddlywiki
Thu Sep 08 2011, 09:00

SOFTWARE ENGINEER Jeremy Ruston believes that open source and BT belong together.

"One reason why culturally eventually open source will be an excellent fit for BT is that old-school engineering idea that 'I'll stake my life on this project because I understand the risks myself because I have the necessary professional background to do so'," he says. BT is, after all, a company that for many years built everything itself.

And yet, it's not a quick match. "The thing about open source is that it all happens in communities," he says. "It's difficult for big companies to relate to communities. You can't just use your size and muscle in the same way - and yet I think that BT could have an amazing role in communities because of having a trusted role in British national life."

The government's interest in open data coupled with BT's long history of government contracts, he says, ought to provide a motivator.

Ruston is the founder of Osmosoft, which BT acquired in 2007 to become its open source arm.

yrs2011-osmosoft-jeremy-rustonAs a freelance consultant, in 2004 Ruston wrote Tiddlywiki as a demo to show off his coding skills. It wasn't originally an open source project, but once he'd posted it on the web something unexpected happened: a community began to form around it.

"People started treating it as not just a demo but as a proper product and started giving feedback accordingly," he says. "The easiest way to get everybody to shut up was to keep improving the software."

Like many others, he found the conversation with his audience rewarding. "It's such a huge validation, not just that you've done good work, but that the idea in my head was sufficiently strong that it transferred into other people's heads."

Tiddlywiki had another significant difference: in a time when everyone was all about the cloud, it can run offline and, since it's stored as a single-page HTML file, can be easily copied or emailed.

Incorporated as Osmosoft, Ruston began helping companies integrate Tiddlywiki into their products. BT acquired Osomosoft as a one-man band.

"Osmosoft had no revenue, no customers, and no intellectual property - all the reasons why they traditionally acquired companies." Unusual, yes, but: "Making the acquisition was a good way of saying this is something that's important."

A question: how does a freelance open source consultant work inside a legacy telco? "I think the single thing we can do that works at every level is to work vigorously on our own open source projects and demonstrate that software is the more useful the more people start to use it."


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