By Stuart Green
An Ottawa-based start-up’s open-source web conferencing platform, BigBlueButton, is under military surveillance by the U.S. government – albeit in a welcome and potentially lucrative way.
Blindside Networks, which manages the development of BigBlueButton, was approached recently by the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) to assist in adapting the platform to DoD’s needs. DoD, the largest branch of the American government and the world’s largest employer, has since deployed a collaboration system based on BigBlueButton and expects to save at least $12 million a year.
According to Blindside CEO Fred Dixon, the DoD had been working with BigBlueButton for years before reaching out in fall of 2014 with some specific questions on the project.
“At the time, we had no idea they were building on BigBlueButton,” a surprised Dixon says. “While I can’t be specific on our involvement in the project, it was very satisfying to see the open source project used at such a large scale.”
Since 2007, Blindside has been developing BigBlueButton for use in remote learning situations. BigBlueButton was created by Richard Alam in 2007 when he was enrolled as a Masters student in Carleton University’s Technology Innovation Management program under the watchful eye of Dr. Tony Bailetti. BigBlueButton allows students and lecturers to connect through real-time sharing of voice, video, chat, presentations and desktop sharing.
The open-source nature of BigBlueButton has allowed it to be improved, enhanced and customized by developers around the world. Blindside Networks coordinates the development and manages each release. BigBlueButton is now in its twelfth release and, thanks to its global community, is localized in over 35 languages.
“We knew the principals of making a successful open source project,” says Dixon. “Our priorities were stability, usability, and features – in that order. We put a lot of work into stability in hopes others would build upon the platform. With the recent adoption inside the DoD, I would say that work has paid off.”
Dixon says that thanks to support from Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), the company is now working to develop a mobile-friendly version of the BigBlueButton platform.
In 2014, OCE's Collaborate to Commercialize program supported BigBlueButton’s move to a mobile Android platform through a $200,000 award toward a collaboration between Blindside and Seneca College with students working on the open-source development side.
“OCE helped us at a critical time,” says Dixon. “This project allowed us to focus on what is going to be an important market need (mobile use).”
The company is planning further mobile development including work on an iOS-compatible version.
OCE previously supported Blindside in 2013 through another collaboration with Seneca College to improve audio and video capabilities of BigBlueButton.
“Blindside is well-positioned to become a real made-in-Ontario success,” says OCE President and CEO Dr. Tom Corr. “They are changing the game when it comes to web-conferencing platforms. Working with the DoD opens the door to working with other government departments – a move that could result in a lot of new business for them.”