Friday, February 29, 2008

Do open source learning solutions really stand a chance?

This evening I was reading the blog of Andreas Wittke who brings up an interesting and the same time somewhat worrying perspective. I think he is quite right in his analysis that higher education institutes have a sort of default procedure when they consider changing to another VLE. Basically the process starts with setting up an extensive list of requirements, followed by a request for proposal (to which companies can subscribe). After the companies have provided their information a small number is invited to make a commercial offer. This whole procedure has to be done according to strict European rules (and takes part mostly behind closed doors). Basically this is what happened in the decision making process of buying a new student information system (SIS) at the University of Twente. For open source communities it is much more difficult to make a bid and offer their proposition in this kind of procedures. The Sakai board tried to enter the Dutch High Education market in 2007, e.g. by setting up a meeting with members from the boards of directors and not to forget by organizing one of the Sakai World Conferences in Amsterdam. It was not a great success in the sense that only a few institutes went along with Sakai. The criteria that Andreas Wittke mentions sound very familiar. Annual turnover is one of them. Companies fall out of the buying procedure, just because their annual turnover is too low. This makes it impossible to compete for small or relatively young companies, which don't have a very good track record. And what about market share? Microsoft claims to have a 95% market share, but this can also be part of their sales strategy in order to keep up a high score on this criterium. An analysis earlier this week at the University of Twente shows that 27% of our VLE users use Firefox as a browser, which is surprisingly close to the share mentioned by Wittke. Perhaps we may set our hopes to our government. The Dutch parliament is nowadays very critical about the sales procedures on software applications. The recent disasters in large governmental ICT projects will make this even worse. A few weeks ago the government stated that in case of equality of software applications (I wonder how they will measure equality...), governmental institutes (which then also applies to higher education institutes) should choose for open standards and open source. Among a lot of other issues we did mention this in our final evaluation report on MS SharePoint. It seems that Google Sites might be(come) an interesting alternative. Our board of directors has to make up their minds on what to do with our current VLE TeleTOP. But what will it be? Take the 'easy' way and go for a migration project with a big and reliable multinational? Or maybe not... Whatever the choice, I think it is time to make a choice, any choice. After three years of doing research, running pilots, analysing where the real problems are, it is not done to postpone the decision again. The first group of students who gave their input on what needs to be improved (system integration!) are moving quickly towards their bachelor or master degree. So they won't benefit anyway...

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Another fine for Microsoft

Yesterday EC commissioner Kroes anounced yet another fine for Microsoft, this time for an amount of € 899 million. This is the highest fine so far and sums up to a total of € 1.7 billion. The reasons for this third fine are basically the same. The EC ordered Microsoft to provide technical information on their server software products in order to enable other companies to develop applications that can run smoothly on the MS platform. However, according to Brussels Microsoft is asking way too much money for this information. Just recently, Microsoft announced to be more collaborative. Technical information on their main server products would be made available for free. The EC was not impressed, since Microsoft did not show any collaborative attitude so far. Brussels is still also looking into complaints of producers of other web browsers like Opera and Firefox. It is very well possible that these complaints may lead to another fine.
The EC announcement comes at a moment that we are finalizing our Quickscan SharePoint final reports (deliverables are due on Feb 29th). One of the issues we are addressing, is that a choice for SharePoint automatically sets course towards vendor lockin, especially on the server and maintenance side of the product. It is suggested that e.g. Firefox end-users can also take advantage of full functionality of MS Sharepoint (MOSS2007), this is not the case, however. For some functionality it's possible to install a Firefox plugin, but this does not provide an equivalent solution compared to IE users. During the site visits it was suggested that Microsoft showed a tendency towards more openness, thus providing better opportunities for interoperability. However, the news as summarized in the first paragraph does not give very much faith that substantial strategy changes indeed can be expected in the near future. Our conclusion to this point is rather straightforward: if you want the optimal SharePoint solution, it means you have to move to a MS infrastructure.