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What’s Happening at BT-Ribbit?

2010 October 20

Opus Research tries not to promulgate rumors, but I’ve heard from two different sources that BT, which acquired phone-app specialist Ribbit in late July 2008 for $105 million, has initiated some major changes in the organization. At the time of its acquisition, Ribbit was one of the prototypes for the transformative phone company, meaning it was one of the first places where RC (Recombinant Communications) was made manifest.

It was founded in early 2006 to provide an application development environment (of “platform”) that made it easy to add telecom and messaging features to Web pages and Web services. They used a RESTful programming environment (with tools like Flex, Flash, Java, PHP, along with Microsoft’s .Net and Silverlight) to build “recombinant apps” that leverage APIs, including Skype Connect and XMPP (now embedded into GoogleTalk).

The first apps, which were made available right about the time of the acquisition, were Ribbit Mobile (which competed directly with Google Voice, but worked with existing numbers) and Ribbit for Salesforce (which provided a tight integration between Ribbit’s voicemail, text, and call handling capabilities and Salesforce’s cloud-based management of contacts and opportunities).

Word has it (this is where I may be overstating what’s really going on) that BT is taking Ribbit “internal”. That means it is less of an “exposure layer” to enable 3rd party developers or enterprise IT folks to build their own solutions and more of an application manufacturing resource for BT’s personnel to develop and deliver ready-made solutions. Ribbit Mobile, Ribbit for Salesforce and a more recently added “Bring Your Own Network” offering are the pre-fabricated service offerings that shorten the lead-time for BT and carrier partners to deliver features and services that employ Ribbit or BT’s IP-based network. After an encouraging start (purchasing Ribbit two years ago), BT remains pretty much a monolith.

Meanwhile, the move toward higher flexibility and open sourcing of application components and cloud-based resources appears to be accelerating. As I noted in previous posts on this site, Orange is very committed to its “Open Source Mobile Widget Program”, which is arguably more granular and more developer-friendly than the BT/Ribbit “bring-your-own-network” approach.

More reently, IBM, with its “Cloud Service Provider Platform”, is doing its best to help incumbent carriers transform themselves into reliable IP- or cloud-based, service delivery platforms. This represents an opportunity to move ever-closer to role of offering a highly-reliable, capacious and feature-rich “services grid”, which is a construct we strongly urge carriers, system integrators, application developers and enterprise customers to take a long, hard look at.

Ultimately, everyone is getting poised for competition “on the glass.” In the enterprise setting it’s a “battle for the desktop”, where applications and features are presented in portals that include feeds, softphones and most-favored applications. Because “the glass” extends to mobile devices, BT and Ribbit were being far-sighted when they made Ribbit Mobile one of their first commercial offerings.

The latest cohort of RC app developers is dealing with a riddle that has plagued the IVR (interactive voice response) and ASR (automated speech recognition) community dating back to the late 1990s. Enterprise customers say that they want flexible tools and application development environments (ADEs) in order to generate custom solutions that bring competitive advantage. Yet, what they often want is a trusted vendor (or resource) that provides an inventory of pre-fabricated solutions that help them bring new products or services to their customers quickly and reliably.

In the world of speech applications, it’s a lesson that the likes of Apptera, TuVox or Voxify have learned as they morphed into providers of specific applications rather than mere tools providers. I think the enterprise demand for reliable solutions to specific problems is driving demand for custom applications, built from well-understood components and running on rock-solid lower layer network resources. That means BT’s approach (bringing Ribbit in-house) may accomplish both near-term and long-term goals.