Friday, 28 May 2010

On Microsoft and anticompetitive positioning in e-learning environments

During the early stage of world ICT adoption growth Microsoft was very much influential in providing the operating systems that simplified computer use. This simplification allowed users to navigate complex computers more simply by providing a neater graphic interface. This was a major break though and very welcomed. During its time as a major software producer it has had to deal with significant complaints of anti-competitive behaviour. At eScience we see with great surprise that Microsoft are again more then willing to enter new and emerging markets using what can best best described as 'anti-competitive' behaviour that will limit innovation in the e-learning and course management market. In the US Microsoft has launched its new educational support service called live@edu. It is a service that devolves information system responsibility to Microsoft by use of its cloud centres. On the face of it the service looks quite good (although we haven't had an opportunity to evaluate tools). The service offers educational establishments the opportunity to move information systems into the cloud yet maintain branding. Institutions that run with the service will be provided free branded email services, free online storage and backup (25Gb per user), free class worksites, free collaboration tools, free access to Office 2010 and free support. Our problem is nothing to do with the products or services, which on the face of it look OK, our problem lies in the disruptive way it is entering the market.

Our objection is that they are entering a fairly mature industry disruptively that will eventually limit competition they face. There is no such thing as free software solution on this scale and there is already very little profit left in the VLE market. If all UK universities where to adopt their model, Microsoft would need to account for approximately 100,000 terabytes of storage space. This will cost something somewhere down the line and that is impossible to refute. The issue, however, is that during times of financial crisis institutions may be tempted to take on this technology to minimise budgetary problems. Come the next economic up wave they'd be locked into a corporate technology where they have no influence on future technology developments. Welcome to a world where Microsoft guides how you research and teach; whereas those institutions with open source developers embedded into their e-Learning/research frameworks can ask for tools to be developed to meet specific institutional needs... to the benefit of all universities using the open source technology. In the long run, the open source opportunity will cost much less than the corporate version as an investment of, say, £100,000 could raise productivity for millions of people globally. We firmly believe that software for universities should be designed by universities that understand the dimensions of academia; not by external profit making agencies seeking to capture human market share. One cannot help but think the long term plan for Microsoft, similarly banks that offer special incentives to students, is to establish a large scale market of well qualified, high earning graduates that it can use to make money from later on. Whatever the business model they have in mind, we must not allow Microsoft to become dominant in this field. Given the recent bad press relating to how large organisations can abuse our online data (e.g. Facebook, Google) we should be quite fearful of storing so much academic material with any commercial organisation that can change privacy and cost settings as it likes and has unlimited financial might to fight the courts.

We hope that you share our concerns regarding Microsoft's aggressive launch; maybe it is too new for people to see the real long term impact of the offering. As far as we are aware live@edu is not yet available in the UK, possibly as the necessary hardware in Aberdeen (the cloud centre) is not complete. It will come online next year however, and we hope resulting cloud services are priced fairly to reflect real operating costs.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Workshop on business support using the Sakai portal

The Lancaster Centre for eScience in collaboration with STFC Daresbury, the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development, Hull University Business School and JISC are hosting a workshop on the strengths of using the Sakai portal as a business support tool. For more information and to register online for the workshop please visit

In brief, the workshop will highlight how private social networks combined with online collaboration environments can be applied to support public service organisations that provide support to business in various ways. As support service provision increases, the question of how to maximise the benefit to all stakeholders needs to be addressed. This workshop shows how cloud based technology has been applied to maximise the impact of business support programmes. The model that has been applied shows that large numbers of owner-managers can be e-managed to the benefit of support initiatives (e.g. Solutions for Business and Business Link). Moreover, it provides support agencies the ability to remain in close contact with the people they support, both service providers and clients are readily contactable as needed quickening knowledge exchange between stakeholders. Additionally, we are able to create support worksites which existing users can voluntarily opt into. Using this 'joinable' site approach we are also able to provide social networking areas designed to help people meet up and communicate on matters of interest. The workshop will live demonstrate portal technology and engage delegates into online communication using a variety of online tools.

The workshop is open to all so please forward the workshop web address ( to all interested party's.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Rejecting social networks as good idea poorly executed - bring on the rebellion

The blogosphere is a truly useful tool for keeping in touch with new world ideas. Social networks on the other hand contain considerable risk to those that 'give up' their data to them. Few are aware or are even concerned about how their data is stored or used. None of us know how this data will be used or abused in the years to come. Inevitably a whiplash occurs when people begin to reject improper use of personal data, as seems to be ocurring among Facebook users. In the UK we have the Data Protection Act which is designed to protect consumer electronic databases. For instance, eScience's Sakai user data cannot be exported outside of our Sakai server without express permission of the data owners, that is, the user's that submitted the content or the creators of the worksites. Since people presently volunteer data to Facebook under their terms and conditions of data ownership they are not covered by its regulation (although this 'exemption' remains untested in UK courts as far as I am aware).

Never in world history have we as a race given so much away for free; without even a cautious second glance.... Marketers will be looking at this world scale experiment with glee. If you use Facebook to its fullest extend everything you submit is contained within it forever more; even complete Facebook suicide is difficult to accomplish as long term backups are unlikely to reflect your change of heart. This means that your social graph that reflects who you are, what you have done and where you have been could be accessible to everyone with an interest in your life whether you like it or not. This is an anthropologists dream come true...

It is refreshing to read a BBC blog by Maggie Shiels that describes the Anti-Facebook group. These are a group of postgraduates from Columbia University that formed the Diaspora Project. The Diaspora project develops open source social environment designed to put peoples' own data back into their ownership. We support this notion to the fullest extent, as evidenced by our past and current endeavours. At Lancaster eScience we are deeply critical of cloud services that own peoples' data and last year began the Collaborative Research in Business (CRIB) project (see earlier blogs for a fuller description). CRIB is a JISC funded project designed to develop 'safe' social networking tools within the Sakai environment. It is now reaching maturity and the software is embedded into Sakai 2.7 that will become available later this year. Note that we are not against social networks in any respect, in fact, the social network revolution has shown us that the online world can support collaborations that people endear themselves to. We are only rebelling against the issues surrounding abuse of personal data. We support a social rebellion seeking security for personal data. In this sense, does our rebellion imply that we seek to overthrow the dark lord of social networks, Mark Zuckerberg? Not at all, his concept of Facebook is as good as it was when it first launched on the Harvard Campus during 2004. It is its poor legal execution we seek to change. In view of our stand, we support the Diaspora project and all that it stands for.