More on the new behemoth – Timing, Open Source and Interoperability

So I’ve had a bit of time to digest the <a href="http://www.blackboard.com/webct/"big announcement yesterday and process what I heard on the analyst call, as well as see some of the feedback from around the edtech blogosphere. Here’s some more thoughts:

Timing and Rationale
First off, let’s put aside any euphemisms about this being a “merger” of equals. This was an acquisition by the largest player in the market (Blackboard, with $90 million in licenses last year) of its next biggest rival (WebCT with approximately $30 million last year in licenses). The offered price allows WebCT’s venture backers to recoup their investment (approx $120 million) with a decent return, far better than they were going to see anytime soon from the 5% operating margin that WebCT was turning at the time of the acquisition. Blackboard has been turning a profit plus is cash rich after it’s IPO, and with that and its line of credit, was in position to take over WebCT.

And the timing does make sense, in retrospect, in relation to WebCT’s recent release of CE6. Very few customers of their existing CE4 product have had time yet to do the upgrade. Sales for Vista have I think not been as good as hoped. So WebCT CE4 customers, expect some vigorous sales calls from Blackboard folks in your near future. BB hopes to convert many of these customers to its platform, and for those it doesn’t, it can still profit from sales of CE6 licenses without having to invest much by way of development in the near future. It will be surprising if there is anything much more than a few bug fix releases of WebCT CE6 before the new behemoth platform emerges.

Open Source
When challenged with the threat of “open source” both Blackboard (and WebCT in the past) have made incredibly vaporous statements in the past about how they are “open systems” if not open source, in an attempt to stave off interest from their customers in open source options. No doubt they will continue to do so, and Bryan Alexander’s right, we are likely to see more FUD coming from that camp. But on the analyst call yesterday they did come off as relatively nonchalant about the open source threat, and unfortunately not all of that is posturing.

Undoubtably, there are existing and future customers who will choose to go with the likes of Moodle and Atutor. Maybe if some of the bigger schools would weigh the value of ease of use and pedagogical flexibility more heavily than IT concerns we’d see even more adopt these two and for them to get the respect they deserve (I know, I know; look I’m not levying this claim, I’m just reporting what the common perception is, rightly or wrongly).

But for now at least, the promise that has been held out for those ‘bigger’ institutions has been lately from Sakai, the ‘enterprise’ open source CMS. And in my eyes this is the real tragedy here. In theory this presents the perfect opportunity for Sakai to shine and come into its own, to convert a ton of both BB and WebCT customers. Certainly, David Wiley seems to lament it not having showed up on a recent RFP in his state. Well true enough, I can understand David’s frustration at it not even showing up in the competition. But in reality it would have had to be an RFP so heavily weighted to business concerns at the expense of current functionality for Sakai to have stood a chance. You may hate the vision of online learning that CMS represent, but if you are trying to compare apples to apples, I just can’t see how the current release of Sakai measures up to these loathed commercial competitors.

But wait, what’s that you say – “but it’s open source, it will grow and and bloom as more people adopt and develop it.” Well, maybe. Hopefully. Last I heard, the soft money didn’t have too much longer to go and there look to be only a couple of instances actually in production. And maybe someone from inside that project can comment to the rest of us how many developers who are not funded through that soft money, and who are outside the “core schools,” are actually contributing code back into the core project right now. ‘Open Source’ at its best means more than just ‘source code availability.’ I will leave it at that lest I spark a religious debate. I do truly wish that project well, as monoculture in elearning is not a good thing. But I speak from personal experience in saying that adopting software solely or primarily because it is open source, and not weighing heavily enough its fit to functional requirements and one’s own capabilities for rectifying that lack of fit, is a fatal mistake in software acquisition and development..

Interoperability and Open ‘Standards’

This is the piece that really gets my goat. IMS has been around since 1997. The Content Packaging, QTI and Enterprise specs (the ones I take to be of primary concern when it comes to CMS portability) are now all at least 5 years old, if not more. And yet all of us, yes US, the adopters, implementers and purchasers of CMS, have given the commercial CMS a pass on these. (SCORM is a different story here, but unfortunately it’s never really applied that well for the higher ed sector, nor for the CMS that service it).

It’s not totally our fault – yes, the specs were a moving target for a long time. Yes, compliance testing likely means a load of liability insurance that no one can afford. Yes, there are good reasons to accept that the specs need to be able to be extended to accommodate things they couldn’t do in their original incarnations.

But we’ve accepted all of these excuses and what do we have? Instead of content interoperability and portability between systems, we basically have vendor lock in, the very thing the freaking specs were supposed to help avoid! And that just got a world worse too with this consolidation. David Davies has it exactly right when he says that “BigCo vendors were cautious about embracing interoperability too vigourously.” But who the heck thought they were ever going to adopt these voluntarily? Say what you like about the military and SCORM, but there are a whole lot of LMS that spent money to conform to that specification, and we know they do because there is a test you can run to confirm this, and there are procurement folks who insist they prove it before they are awarded a contract.

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Wow, I must have been bottling a lot of stuff up over the last few months of not posting to the blog. At least that’s the excuse I’ll give to anyone I pissed off with this write up! Anyways, that’s my limited view of things. Good luck! – SWL

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More on the new behemoth – Timing, Open Source and Interoperability