Ribbit: Global Platform War

Reader JenST responds to my recent analysis of "smartphone carnage", saying:

"See BT purchased Ribbit.  This could be the first move of the carriers to take control from Google, Microsoft, Apple."

JP Rangaswami, the guy at BT responsible for this acquisition, is one of my favorite bloggers, so I have followed this story with interest.  Although he doesn't talk about work on his blog, he is an extremely lucid and enjoyable thinker who understands this new world deeply.  And the news stories provide enough additional details to start forming opinions.

In short, I think JenST is right.  While it's too early to paint this as a direct assault on Google (or other carriers, for that matter), this is a really strategic acquisition.

The key thing to realize here is that BT is trying to do for carriers (and particularly, voice) what Facebook did for social networks, and what Amazon did for hosting.  This was BT's strategy prior to the Ribbit acquisition, and Ribbit was pursuing this strategy independently.  The essence of this strategy is to open up your platform, and let your developers evolve the difficult parts and edge cases organically.  Rather than trying to design a complex and monolithic platform speculatively before signing up a single developer, you define just the core pieces, and let the platform grow and adapt to real-world needs.

I respectfully disagree with Om, when he speculates that it will be *harder* for Ribbit to attract developers under the BT mantle.  When pursuing a Facebook/Amazon strategy, Ribbit had to convince developers that their network had critical mass -- a key value proposition of Facebook development is the millions of people already on the network.  With the BT partnership, Ribbit is instantly associated with a massive global network.  Now that the backing network is more than a toy (and a carrier with a real business model), Ribbit is a lot more interesting to serious developers.

Sam Dean expresses a slightly different concern, worrying that BT will squash the "openness" of Ribbit.  To be honest, I can't make heads or tails of this.  What exactly was so "open" about Ribbit in the first place?  It certainly wasn't "open source", and if all of the IP were entirely unencumbered, it's hard to imagine what the $105 million acquired.  Furthermore, the SDK currently supports only Flash, which is rather proprietary last I checked.  I am reminded of the recent controversy on FriendFeed over the promiscuous use of the word "open".  Let's just agree that Ribbit has some characteristics of "openness", just like the Facebook API and Amazon EC2/S3; and that this quasi-openness can add a lot of value to BT's walled garden just as Facebook's social graph and Amazon's physical infrastructure derive value from their controlled openness.

So ... will this move be the gasoline that lights a fire in the heretofore controlled world of telco platforms?  I don't know.  BT is clearly hoping to force the hand of other telcos and VOIP providers, just as Facebook and Amazon forced their larger competitors to follow suit.  So long as they nurture their developer community and show some measurable gains, other telcos will certainly need to pay attention.

But it seems that BT wish more to pre-empt a Google, Microsoft, or Apple move as much as disrupt their carrier competitors.  The money quote is JP saying:

"What we expect the competition to do – and we think it will much more likely be the Apples and Googles of the world – is to start positioning around a device [such as the iPhone] or an approach to connectivity [such as Google’s ad-based Web model"

Now, that is strategic thinking.  I am pleased (or am I?) that JP cannot imagine Microsoft being a player in this space.

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