Ruston believes he's made progress.
"In the time since I've been here, open source has become much more widely accepted within the organisation," he says. The obstacles to adoption have, however, been different than he expected.
"The primary thing I hadn't taken into account is how lots of decisions about procuring software are made - the overwhelming consideration will be one of risk." In a traditional telco, the key risk to guard against is anything that might compromise the reliability of the network. Even the most internet-loving technician will agree on one simple fact: no computer is engineered to the robustness of the old telephone network. "People in BT talk about 'carrier grade'," Ruston says. "It's certainly a whole way of thinking that is very different than outside telcos."
Historically, BT has focused on risks that can be straightforwardly monitored, like the integrity of cables, rather than less tangible risks like missed opportunities. It also tends to focus on traditional ways of mitigating risks, such as choosing a small number of large, well-known suppliers to whom risk can be contractually delegated. Open source requires a different assessment of risk and a different approach.
Accordingly, Ruston finds himself explaining open source to people within BT, without Powerpoint because, "we believe in show rather than tell". In addition, he and his team continue working on and extending Tiddlywiki and its accompanying hosting service, Tiddlyspace.
Ruston thinks it's significant that, unlike most open source projects, from the beginning Tiddlywiki has been aimed at consumers instead of developers and techies. That meant, he says, that the community that coalesced around it was markedly different from most others.
A relevant example is the Anna Freud Centre, whose psychiatrists use TiddlySpace to create a therapeutic manual they can all use and which provides experience-based guidance for very specific situations.
"It's a great example of new-school NHS - cheap local technologies that don't require lots of support to investigate innovative new solutions and being able to do that without this top-loading pressure of a big IT project," says Ruston. "It doesn't feel like an IT project, it feels like a psychiatry project."
Projects like this are both a validation of the technology and, he says, a benefit to the company. "By running the service externally with real users doing stuff that matters to them, we get feedback and learn about the service. Volume outside precedes the volume inside BT, and the users are more heterogeneous and more radically different things - missionaries, not just mathematicians." µ
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