Now's the Time for Open Source

A perspective on the higher education marketplace and its readiness for open source

By John G. Robinson, The rSmart Group

As I look back over the past 35+ years of higher education technology, I would say that, for the first 20 years or so, the major proprietary vendors built their businesses and their solutions in response to the market’s needs. This was driven by people who had been in higher education and had a mission to help the higher education community. But during the past 10 to 15 years, vendors have repositioned themselves to become “marketing machines.” The results have been very little important innovation by major companies and a tremendous focus by vendors on gaining market share through acquisition, extending the life of obsolete products, raising maintenance fees, and heavy marketing and sales.

John G. Robinson

John G. Robinson

This has literally opened the doors for the open source movement in higher education. Why? Because higher education d'esn’t relate to large corporate modus operandi, and they wish to rely more on each other for innovation, cost structure, avoidance of potential lock-up by vendors, and sustainability (after all, they have been in business for hundreds of years, unlike the corporate “upstarts”). Higher education is the first industry to encourage this movement openly. And that’s because they are collaborative, opposed to the type of corporate practices they have been seeing for the past 10 to 15 years, wish to engage in protecting their destiny, are particularly cost conscious (one hopes), and have a rather independent streak.

So, now’s the time for open source! All the evidence seems to suggest that the large-and becoming-larger proprietary vendors have not been in step with the higher education community. Rather, those vendors are getting further away from their own customers in their philosophy and actions. They’re putting profit before responsibility. It’s time – in fact, past time – to change the methods of providing the software solution that’s been desired and not delivered. The proven open source developments in the general-market IT infrastructure arena (Linux, Apache, MySQL) were largely conducted by academics, and it is with the same mindset that applications solutions for higher education should follow...and they are! It is merely a natural evolution, and its time is here.

Looking now at the status of the marketplace, it’s easy to understand higher education’s disenchantment with the current era of proprietary applications and the priorities of companies who offer – or maybe even force – them on the market. Look at the change in vendor appearance at trade shows, the slick marketing, the schemes to freeze markets, the heavy play to make old technology look new, the push for “integrated ERP” solutions (which are not at all integrated, but the message sells), and the hype at user group meetings instead of meaningful work sessions. You do not see such energies committed to identifying and responding to the customers’ requirements or taking a serious look at the concerns of higher education institutions and trying to get together with them to help them make the necessary changes. Rather, it is all about the companies’ well-being, market share, profit, image, and competitive advantage.

It’s no wonder that there is a welcoming of business models that bring higher education’s real issues front and center. And thank goodness the higher education community is strong! As so often happens, technology coupled with societal needs has ushered in the community source (open source) model, which d'es address the changing environment and is promising to “speak” to the higher education community and address real needs that have been long-ignored because the “holders” of the technology solution (the vendors) are focused on their own well-being.

John G. Robinson is chairman of The rSmart Group. He is widely recognized as a visionary in higher education technology with more than 35 years founding and running companies that offer software solutions to the higher education marketplace.

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