UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Web Owner vs. Web User Tensions

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 2 July 2007

My colleague Marieke Guy has organised a panel session entitled “Dealing with the Commercial World: Saviour or Satan?” at the IWMW 2007 event. The abstract for the session begins “With the introduction of variable fees Universities have entered what education secretary Ruth Kelly called “a new era”. Financial departments have had to find more creative ways to meet the sector’s growing competitive demands and those working within universities have had to take a more business-like, customer-focused approach to many aspects of their work as they compete for students.

The aim of the panel session is to address the tensions which often seem to occur within the higher education sector when dealing with commercial companies.

Marieke has asked me to take part in the panel. My view is that the commercial vs. non-commercial software is no longer a major philosophical debate: we are all New Labour in our thinking, these days. And the open source debate is primarily about fitness for purpose, rather than open source ideology.

User-Owner / Commercial-Non-commercial axesMore interesting, I feel, is the owner versus user dimension. I’ve tried to illustrate this in the accompanying diagram, where I suggest there may be four sectors of interest:

A: An emphasis on the service owner, using non-commercial tools. The extremes of the sector may represent the view of the ‘open source fundamentalist‘.

B: An emphasis on the service owner, using commercial tools. The extremes of the sector represent the view of the ‘vendor fundamentalist‘.

C: An emphasis on the user, using non-commercial tools. This is where the user-focussed open source developer would like to be positioned

D: An emphasis on the user, using commercial tools. This may be the sector in which an organisation which makes use of commercial products sees itself.

However rather than reducing these sectors to such simple divisions, of more interest might be to explore the tensions between organisations will a user focus and those which take a more managerial approach.

Quality content: Members of institutional Web management teams have always prided themselves on developing systems and deploying software which can ensure that the content on the Web site conforms with a variety of rules.

Quality experience: However we are starting to find that some institutions are now emphasising the importance of providing a quality experience for its users, and, providing the content is not illegal, give less of an emphasis on the quality of the content.

Compliance with accessibility rules: Institutions may have policies which state that all corporate pages will comply with WCAG AA guidelines for Web accessibility. They may feel that this policy will ensure that they will not be sued under accessibility legislation.

User-focussed approach to accessibility: However some institutions may feel that WCAG guidelines are dated and, in some areas, inappropriate and will be willing to infringe the guidelines if this can enhance the accessibility and usability for their target audience.

Mandation of use of open standards: Institutions may insist that Web services comply strictly with HTML and CSS standards.

Pragmatic approach to use of open standards: Other institutions may prefer to use Web services which comply with HTML and CSS standards, but may be willing to drop this requirement if the service can provide a useful function for the institution.

Bans based on ideology: In a recent discussion on the web-support JISCMail list there was a suggestion that HTML email should not be allowed as it is often used for marketing purposes.

Providing flexibility: In a response to the discussion on use of HTML in email others argues that (a) marketing is an acceptable activity and (b) it is desirable to allow end users choice on how they wish their email to be delivered.

ANdrew Aird's slide - IWMW 2002Of course the situation is much more complex than pictured here, and there are many cases in which strict compliance with rules may need to be enforced. But the boundaries are shifting, I feel. Much of the talks and discussions at previous IWMW events, for example, have covered areas in which Web management teams would like greater managerial control (with Andrew Aird famously suggesting back in 2002 that “Web Team has ultimate say-so. No buts“).

There’s a need for the Web management community to rethink its values and the approaches we have traditionally taken. We’re not living in the 20th century any more, after all!

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5 Responses to “Web Owner vs. Web User Tensions”

  1. We’re not living in the 20th century any more, after all!

    One of the aims of the web as a whole was to allow research to be disseminated in an organic way. Now that Web 2.0 tools allow non-technical users to publish without having to worry about trivialities like HTML or FTP to transfer documents, the whole idea of a web team as a force for content control is an anachronism. Like so much in modern educational technology, it’s a way for people to assert control where no control is needed: power as an obstacle rather than an enabling force. It’s a sad fact that many people in education are there to protect their own intellectual turf rather than for the greater good and to further human knowledge. The rules you speak of towards the top of your post are a case in point.

    If someone is employed to do research or teach at a university, they should be trusted to publish. End of story. They are a part of that university, and if the institution does not want them to spread their thoughts or research, they shouldn’t have employed them to begin with. If someone is a student at a university, they should also be allowed to publish; if they’re not good enough, they shouldn’t have been admitted. Universities, in the bricks and mortar sense, are communities of people collaborating to learn, to research and to develop ideas – or at least they should be. There’s no reason why their electronic equivalents shouldn’t be the same.

    Regarding commercial vs non-commercial software: commercial software by necessity has to work a little better, otherwise its parent company is going to go bust. (Exceptions obviously made for the likes of Blackboard, where virtual monopolies exist.) There’s a reason why we’re not all using wordprocessers and web browsers developed at the University of Wherever. Open source is very much also commercial software; Firefox is bankrolled largely by Google, Elgg is run by Curverider, Moodle has a commercial arm, and the likes of IBM and Novell have their hands very firmly in Linux development. Where education tries to produce actual products that work, it very often fails because it doesn’t have a bottom line to look after; that results in inefficient development models and, frankly, a lot of talk where solid development could take place.

  2. Saying the above, I am, of course, a very big supporter of educational technology, and for what it’s worth extremely left-wing in my thinking about the way education should work. But it should also know its limits, and the strengths of other sectors (and vice versa); there is no reason why the commercial and educational worlds can’t embrace each other to create collaborations that are more than the sum of its parts.

  3. Ross Gardler said

    You say that (with respect to the non-commercial/user qudrant):

    C: An emphasis on the user, using non-commercial tools. This is where the user-focussed open source developer would like to be positioned

    I’m afraid this is not true, at least it is not true of all user-focussed open source developers. In fact, if you look at, for example, the Apache Software Foundation or the Eclipse Foundation you will find thousands of “user focussed open source developers” who are there because they are being paid to work on commercial products that are built on top of the various open source projects within those foundations.

    These open source developers (and the commercial organisations employing them) would fit equally as well into the “commercial/user” quadrant.

    Open source does not always equate to non-commercial.

    You also say (with respect to the non-commercial/owned quadrant):

    A: An emphasis on the service owner, using non-commercial tools. The extremes of the sector may represent the view of the ‘open source fundamentalist‘.

    I’m not at all sure what an “open source fundamentalist” is, or how they fit into the non-commercial/owned sector you place them into. Personally, I see this sector as containing free software (as opposed to open source) that is also available under a dual license model (thus requiring ownership). I’m not sure how this relates to service owners, if it is free and/or open source software then anyone can reproduce the service and therefore it is not fully owned.

  4. Hi Ross
    Thanks for the comments.
    I’d agree with you that there are commercial aspects to use of open source, such as the consultancy & support aspects (as you commented on your Income from open source continues to rise post recently).
    My post was meant to address some of the simplistic views which we still seem to encounter (one speaker at a conference I attended a while ago described how his department had migrated from MS Office to Open Office – but had to remove the calendaring service which had been provided previously as there wasn’t an equivalent open source solution. This, I feel, is an fundamentalist position).
    An interesting issue which we’ll need to address is where Web 2.0 services (e.g. APIs which may be currently open) fits in – is ‘free software’ the same as ‘free Web services’ I wonder?

  5. Goodness, isn’t this whole discussion so very 20th Century?

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