Why Open Source isn't Tiddly for BT

I'd come across TiddlyWiki before, but never really got what it was about:

TiddlyWiki is a single html file which has all the characteristics of a wiki - including all of the content, the functionality (including editing, saving, tagging and searching) and the style sheet. Because it's a single file, it's very portable - you can email it, put it on a web server or share it via a USB stick.

But it's not just a wiki! It has very powerful plugin capabilities, so it can also be used to build new tools. You have full control over how it looks and behaves. For example, TiddlyWiki is already being used as:

A personal notebook

A GTD ("Getting Things Done") productivity tool

A collaboration tool

For building websites (this site is a TiddlyWiki file!)

For rapid prototyping

...and much more!

I'm somewhat the wiser now, having spent a useful couple of hours this morning in the company of the people behind TiddlyWiki at their offices in Victoria. What I'd seen as rather a perverse implementation of wiki technology that bunged buckets of Javascript at the bottom of the Web page for no good reason turns out to be something closer to a rich platform for collaboration. That Javascript stuff is a way of adding extra functions extremely easily.

Indeed, Jeremy Ruston, TiddlyWiki's creator, rightly pointed out that a plug-in architecture is the hallmark of many of the most successful open source projects, since it lets people contribute at a level above that of tinkering with the main code, which is not something many can contemplate lightly.

Thinking about it, that should have been obvious to me, since modularity plays the same important role for the main codebase: plug-ins are an adaptation of the same idea for a wider, slightly less-technical group of coders.

The company behind TiddlyWiki, Osmosoft, is now part of BT. There are obvious benefits in using TiddlyWikis internally, not least that ability to create vertical plug-ins, as well as externally, working with BT's clients. But I was surprised to learn that this was almost incidental to perhaps the main reason for BT's acquisition of the company.

Apparently, some in BT became aware that its old ways of not just developing but even managing were fast becoming obsolete; it was also cognisant of the fact that open source offered a completely different way of doing both – and one that was proving increasingly successful. Rather amazingly, and to its credit, BT decided to acquire an open source company in order to learn about the processes behind it.

Thus TiddlyWiki became both a tool for doing, and also a tool for learning. The emphasis was on “showing not telling”, and Tiddlywiki, with its low barriers to entry, was a perfect “toy” learning system that could also be deployed across the entire entreprise to solve real-world problems.

Perhaps it's not so surprising that BT has taken this innovative path towards openness; after all, the Managing Director of BT Design (whatever that is) is JP Rangaswami, whose fine blog “Confused of Calcutta” shows him to be a long-standing friend of free sofware and all that it implies.

He was also present at this morning's meeting, and it was good to see his optimism that the virus of openness is gradually spreading among the upper echelons of BT. Bearing in mind that BT was the company that tried to patent the hyperlink a few years back, it obviously has come a long way, not least thanks to the internal evangelism of Rangaswami and his Osmosoft team.

But I still look forward to the day when BT's appreciation of the virtues of sharing extend to public declarations that attempts to enclose the intellectual commons through intellectual monopolies are a waste of time, and that patents – at least for software – are a n obstacle to innovation that should be abolished definitively.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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