professional reflections

Did Google just make me look like an idiot?

Commenting on the Google Apps outage last week, John Proffitt, IT services director at APTI, an Alaskan public TV station, said:

"It was constant troubleshooting, testing, research, posting to the Google Apps forums and so on. Plus there's the emotional strain of wondering whether you completely screwed up by moving everyone to Google Apps as our sole e-mail system. That's what freaked me out: Did Google just make me look like an idiot?"

[via Gmail leaves Google Apps admins nervous on InfoWorld, my emphasis]

In the higher-education-institution (HEI) community I have seen a fair amount of debate recently about whether or not institutions should be looking to embrace the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model and, in particular, making use of all remote those Web 2.0 services. Why run local services, when you can simply find a remote service to provide for your needs?

Perhaps this is a model for the future. But is the right model for the present? There is a growing, commonly-held belief that we are about to enter a global recession. Just the fact that the assumption is commonly held may be enough to make this a reality. Clearly there is a degree of economic uncertainty. Is this a good moment for HEIs to begin a brave experiment with outsourcing services to remote companies?

Now, Google are clearly not a fly-by-night company - their size now makes them a fairly safe bet. But the vast majority of Web 2.0 companies are a fraction of the size of Google. As it is, many Web 2.0 services appear to exist with no visible means of support, other than venture capital. I imagine that venture capital can become harder to find in a period of economic down-turn. Much Web 2.0 service delivery is supported through an advertising model, relying on a revenue stream coming from a small percentage of advertisements 'clicked' on. Again, perhaps people are less likely to respond to advertisements in a recession….?

Chris Adie, who spoke on ' Managing the Risks of Web 2.0' at this year's (excellent) Eduserv Foundation Symposium, made the related point that Web 2.0 services which rely on a global scale in terms of numbers of users and/or on social networks will become decreasingly useful if the number of users starts to drop. Essentially, the network effect works both ways….

Incidentally, Chris also pointed us to some Guidelines for Using External Web 2.0 Services supplied by Edinburgh University. and spoke authoritatively about the institution's use of remote Web 2.0 services and the risks involved in this, especially in terms of compliance with the Data Protection Act. Interestingly, the 'back-channel' at the symposium, populated primarily perhaps by people likely to be passionate about new technology, tended to dismiss some of Chris's points. I felt that some participants either didn't realise, or didn't care that Chris was describing risks to the institution.

Once we got past the recession at the end of the dot-com bubble in the first years of this century, the notion of an open-source operating system had reached a level of sufficient maturity for it to enter the mainstream. Web 2.0 services and SaaS as a viable, mainstream approach will likely reach similar levels of maturity in time. But perhaps now, more than ever, institutions need to make sober appraisals of their options for service delivery or procurement.

After all, no one wants to be made to look like an idiot!

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