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For Mobile Strategies, Open Source Offers Flexibility

As universities transition to a mobile-friendly campus, more and more IT departments are considering the benefits of open source technology. Cost is definitely a factor, but schools are just as attracted to the flexibility that open source gives them.

When the University of Chicago (IL) first introduced mobile technology two years ago, a key goal was to launch a product as soon as possible. Developer skills for mobile apps were hard to come by, so it made sense to go with a vendor. "It was faster to have a turnkey product," explains Cornelia Bailey, user experience consultant for IT Services. Today, the mobile landscape and the university's thinking have changed. The original product is now "not flexible enough" for the fast-evolving world of mobile technology. Instead, Bailey and her team decided to explore the possibility of going open source.

"In considering open source versus vendor source, we're looking at the total cost, the project budget, the speed of deployment, and the ability to be agile," said Bailey. "If we need three to five years to implement a low-cost solution, that's not a good choice."

As part of the school's decision-making process, Bailey is heading a pilot program that includes a combination of open source technology and program integration provided by uMobile, an open source project run by Jasig in partnership with Unicon, a software consulting company that specializes in open source projects.

In Bailey's eyes, the pilot program must meet two criteria: the ability to authenticate users to the app, and the ability to turn functionality on and off without republishing the app. 

"If we can authenticate our users--whether they're faculty or student, for example--we can show offerings that make sense to the individual, instead of showing everything to everyone." Bailey explained. "If we can turn functionality on and off without republishing the app, we can show functions of a time-limited nature. Orientation Week and Alumni Weekend are good examples. These are relevant for a while, and then drop off. We prefer to turn them on and off rather than keep them on year-round."

Data feeds for the mobile pilot include maps, news, personalized calendar integration, directory integration, announcements, athletics, courses, and search. Bailey and her team were also able to integrate their existing library, transit, and alumni-week websites as modules.

"It's now clear that the turnkey product is not flexible enough," Bailey reflected. "We moved into open source because it's easier to work with. It wasn't available two years ago. Now it is. That's the evolution of our thinking."

A similar focus on flexibility is driving Oakland University's (MI) search for a mobile solution. "We're coming from an ERP background, and we need more agility," noted CIO Theresa Rowe. "We need to segment services differently with handheld devices."

Oakland kicked off its mobile-development program last fall, and is looking at vendor and open source options, including uMobile. "As a programmer, I see a lot of benefits in open source, including a low learning curve and a lot of good opportunities," said Aaron Grant, a senior developer working with Rowe on the project.

"The cost for open source is low," added Rowe. "We can quickly adapt, or we can drop the app and move on with something else. It gives us an opportunity to look at app design and to really approach how we provide services. Being locked into large software systems makes it hard to maneuver."

The appeal of open source is not unusual, according to John Lewis, chief software architect for Unicon and a Jasig board member. In his view, there has been "a long, slow transition" to open source, with recent financial circumstances triggering a re-evaluation by many educational institutions. There are a lot of emerging open source business models, said Lewis, but uMobile is "real" open source.

The distinction, according to Lewis, has to do with control. "Paying a proprietary licensing fee is a big issue," said Lewis. "More importantly, there is the question of control. Open source de-couples these issues. With open source, you can work with a service vendor, and that vendor has to do a good job, or you can stop using that vendor. The relationship is as honest as it can be. This applies to the mobile space as well as to any enterprise system."

With some open source vendors, he claimed, there is an "intentional downside." For example, the vendor might not offer as much quality assurance, bug fixes, or security updates. In the case of "real" open source, said Lewis, "you enable freedom. You can change your mind easily and quickly."

Patty Gertz, executive director of Jasig, believes that open source has another inherent advantage over proprietary systems when it comes to the mobile space: With vendors, there are often delays between platforms. "You deploy the iPhone, for instance, and then wait two or three months for the Droid," she explained. "The environment is not as agile. You have to wait for the vendor to respond."

Even so, for institutions that lack developer resources, a vendor may still be the best choice. Open source solutions are not plug-and-play propositions. "There is no license fee for the open source software, but a combination of staff and financial resources is required," advised Gertz. "If the institution has internal developer and project management resources, it can use the Jasig website to access the code through a free download, as well as the documentation, and the communities that support the product through e-mail lists. Or it can partner with a commercial services organization such as Unicon for implementation and ongoing support."

Neither Chicago's Bailey nor Rowe at Oakland has made a final decision regarding uMobile. "We're doing round two with uMobile," said Bailey. "We haven't decided if we're going to go with it. But, so far, the pilot has passed with flying colors."

"In the end," added Rowe, "there will probably be a mix of apps at Oakland. We'll try to make wise choices in terms of open source and vendors."

uMOBILE, With or Without uPORTAL

Both the University of Chicago and Oakland University are using uPortal, an open source Java-based portal framework built by higher education for higher education. Coordinated by Jasig, the 12-year-old product forms the basis for uMobile. According to Unicon's Lewis, uMobile is "very attractive" to users of uPortal because the products are so similar. Indeed, for Oakland University, the similarity between the two platforms may be the key factor in its ultimate decision about what mobile solution to implement. At the same time, noted Lewis, "uMobile is also an attractive option for universities not using uPortal."

In fact, schools that haven't built a portal yet might consider jumping directly to uMobile. "If you missed that phase of technology, you might be better off skipping it and develop with mobile as your target," said Rowe.

About the Author

Toni Fuhrman is a writer and creative consultant based in Los Angeles.

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