With a flourish worthy of a Napoleonic sea captain surprising the enemy, BT has run down the colours of proprietary protocols and hoist the open standard over 21CN -- its 21st Century Network. This looks bold, but is entirely necessary.
The very things that closed systems seek to protect become liabilities, not assets, in an increasingly open world. Delivering bits alone is no longer a profitable business. Telcos are realising that the only way to survive, let alone prosper, will come through an ability to implement and deliver a very wide variety of customisable services quickly and efficiently in response to actual customer demand. They are also realising how hard this is and how bad they are at doing it. .
HP's European telecoms chief Marc Rotthier has said that ideally, deploying a new service should cost less and be quicker than doing a marketing study. The telco that can do this will have an enormous advantage over those that can't, especially in the under-developed areas of enterprise services and mobile data. But the only way to do this in today's heterogeneous and rapidly mutating technical environment is by adopting open systems. The profitable skills will be knitting together systems and selling the results, not defending islands of empire that remain expensively intact yet utterly irrelevant.
It looks as if BT Wholesale has cottoned on. By saying that it will demand interoperable open systems in 21CN, it might look to us townie IT types like a quaint country cousin discovering colour TV, but to other telcos -- and to the institutional shareholders -- this is a brave new world.
Two caveats remain. Open means many things to many people, and until BT defines exactly what it means it could be Gatesian shorthand for 'you work with us under our rules, or you're open to leave'. The other is that internecine fighting within BT may drain the vitality out of this move, in the same way that ISDN, ADSL and VoIP were historically enfeebled. In all three cases, BT had a world-class technological lead that it threw away rather than effectively deploy -- corporate cowardice that will be long remembered.
With 21CN, BT has the chance to regain the initiative and prove it has the guts and foresight to look ahead, not back. Yet fine words buffer no packets -- concrete proof must be forthcoming. If BT were to let its vendors openly talk about what they're doing, that would be a good start.