Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Keep Calm and Carry On - or not?

Keep calm and carry onImage by scottroberts via Flickr

I have a t-shirt I'm fond of wearing with the now cult British wartime slogan Keep Calm and Carry On. I'm very fond of this particularly British message, but when is it appropriate? When do we buckle down and carry on as ever? When do we recognise that the world has changed and we need to change with it or get left behind?

It has been both invigorating and depressing to read a new report from JISC & Demos: The Edgeless University: why higher education must embrace technology. This is a pretty bleak wake-up call to HE in general and IT within HE in particular.

"British Universities have world-class reputations and they are vital to our social and economic future. But they are in a tight spot. The huge public investment that sustained much of the sector is in jeopardy and the current way of working is not sustainable. Some are predicting the end of the university as we have known it."

...that’s just the introduction!

Brian Kelly contributed to the report and highlighted the main themes on the UK Web Focus blog. He picks out one striking quote from a participant:

This seminar feels a bit like sitting with a group of record industry executives in 1999’.

Napster launched in 1999. It provided quick easy and illegal access to popular music in MP3. The record industry fought and squashed Napster, but other, impossible to control peer to peer filesharing services sprung up in its place.

Eventually legal music stores arrived, notably the iTunes Store in 2003. Rights holders were properly compensated, but the music was encumbered by DRM and wasn't portable between different MP3 players. Consumers were being asked to pay for a worse experience! It wasn't until 2008 - nearly 10 years later - that the industry finally licensed legal, DRM-free MP3 stores for the most popular content.

It's not just the music industry either. Newspapers are currently going through the same convulsions. They misunderstood the web - they thought that websites were an advert for their product, but it was their product. Now they are desperately struggling to find a new business model.

What about UK HE? As a culture we still don't get the networked economy, and are slow to understand the implications. Again from UK Web Focus:

"A few weeks ago the “Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World” report was published. And today we see another report which provides a similar top-down view on the importance of Web 2.0 in higher education. If you encounter resistance to change from senior managers in your institution I’d suggest you beat them over the head with these two report[s] until they realise that Web 2.0 is changing the higher educational environment."

To understand the implications of the edgeless university start with Brian Kelly, or better still read the original report (I've also ordered a paper copy which I'll leave in the Bristol Computer Centre staff room). Other good commentaries are from Sarah Bartlett on the Xiphos blog and Chris Sexton, director of Comupting Services at University of Sheffield.

I'll be following up soon with my take on this, starting with reference to another long-sighted Kelly - Kevin Kelly.

Friday, 26 June 2009

What students (and Vice Chancellors) want

It's been an interesting week. We've had a visit from the University Vice Chancellor to Information Services, and several thousand prospective students for the University Open Day. Two excellent opportunities to do some market research - to find out what we should be doing from the top down and the bottom up.

For much of Thursday I was fielding enquiries from sixth formers on the Information Services open day stand. The library was the hot topic, with relatively few queries about IT facilities. Those we did get assumed the existence of facilities but probed their extent: "Do you have Internet in all the rooms?", "Does it stop working if everyone uses it at once?", "Is the Computer Room 24 hours?", "Is there always a computer when I need one?".

Earlier in the week I presented some results from our Student IT Survey of 1400 Bristol students. What do students want? I suggested three requirements:
  • It should just work
  • It should work with my stuff
  • It should be the same everywhere
To these the VC added "It should just work all the time", quoting the example of email as an essential service which we can't afford to go down.

I talked about ResNet and our wireless network as like plumbing - essential utilities which we can't cope without and which work (nearly?) all the time. Once novel, they are now mature, unexciting services. Students do still appreciate them - we score very highly for Internet Access in the International Students Barometer.

We then looked forward, at the personal mobile technology students are starting to carry with them - smartphones and netbooks - and the explosion of innovative web services - Facebook, Google, iTunes, Skype, Twitter, etc etc - which set the standards our students expect. The VC was impressed by the pace of change in IT, and our response to it as an organisation. What would we be important in four years time he wondered? Ebooks perhaps?

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Has Open Source won the argument?

"Open Source software has won the argument...it is now generally accepted that the future will involve a blend of proprietary and open-source software" Not my words, but those of a leader in The Economist (a publication more known for a love of free markets than free software).

Why does The Economist like Open Source? Because it reduces the danger of lock-in. Lock-in is an insidious practice which harms customers and leads to monopolies.

"selling software to large companies was sometimes likened to drug dealing, because once a firm installed a piece of software, it had to pay a stream of licence fees for upgrades, security patches and technical support. Switching to a rival product was difficult and expensive. But with open-source software there was much less of a lock-in. There are no licence fees, and the file formats and data structures are open."

I'm a pragmatist on the choice of open source or proprietary software. As an individual I'll happily buy proprietary software if it saves me time or makes my life easier. With an institutional hat on, I'm much more cautious and try to think longer term - what will I get stung for next time? Will I have to buy the whole stack of all the vendor's other products?

True free software abolishes the headache of accounting for all the per user licenses. That's a huge advantage, but sometimes free software just isn't available to do what I want. Next best is proprietary software where the vendor will sell me an easy site licence based simply on head count. That still leaves me worried about data lock-in though. An open source company with a hybrid model - give away the standard product but charge me for the enterprise-ready clustered version - now that's pretty attractive. You'll be using open standards for data storage. Keep your licensing simple and server based (no CALs!). Finally, don't charge too much - but I'm not worried as if you ever do I can take that component out and switch to someone else.