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!


[…] out dangers of the dependencies on externally-hosted Web 2.0 services, as my colleague Paul Walk pointed out recently. But as I mentioned last year in a post entitled “Universities, Not Facebook, May Be […]

[…] services? What happens if such services do break? After all, as my colleague Paul Walk has recently pointed out and “there is a growing, commonly-held belief that we are about to enter a global […]


Having questions from remote participants was a useful auxiliary to the Q&A session at the event, and displaying the channel which provided these was entirely sensible in my view. (I remember you did this with SecondLife chat in the Symposium in 2007 and I thought this approach worked well then too).

Those of us who chose to use other 'backchannels' did so in order to have a different sort of conversation. In fact, I made use of less overt back channels in addition to the 'official' Coveritlive channel. For that matter, I also indulged in whispered exchanges with people sitting close by. Perhaps this is rude behaviour, but I'll probably do it in future…. ;-)

I didn't detect any dissatisfaction with the way the event was organised at the time and personally thought it was excellent.

I also consider it reasonable for me to comment on impressions I received from discussions at the time, without offering references/evidence/citations. This is one of the reasons I blog!

Just to clarify… Coveritlive wasn't displayed "for all to see" during the talks (it was visible to anyone with wireless access in the room) but we did put it on screen during the Q&A sessions at the end of each talk so that remote participant's comments/questions could be seen directly by the real-life (RL) audience.

I hope this was made clear at the start of the day (but as has been noted elsewhere, doing so doesn't help remote participants who join the day late) and I thought it was announced immediately before it happened at the end of each talk - but again, for various reasons that may not have happened - though one could argue that this is too late anyway.

The intention was that live comments would not be disruptive (in real time) to speakers while they were talking but that since the comments were being made public to virtual participants (including a subset of the RL audience) anyway there was no real reason not to make them public to the whole audience?

Hi Paul - thanks for the clarification. It seems that we will need to talk about 'back-channels' in the plural - and also clarify whether this includes informal F2F comments. It seems that the users of the official Coveritlive backchannel were the ones who could appreciate the arguments being made by Chris, but users on other backchannels had differing views.

BTW I (as a remote participant) hadn't realised that the Coveritlive content was being displayed for all to see. I'm slightly concerned that this happens, even though I appreciate that the discussions take place in an open environment. But that's a separate debate.

David, A really interesting comment - thanks!

I think the core/chore dichotomy forms an interesting frame for this discussion.

SaaS in its Web2.0 guise seems to challenge conventional wisdom in this respect. When I worked in IT support we tended to consider outsourcing the 'chore', while developing the core in-house. The rationale was that we concentrated our efforts on the core. Your model, and I think you may be right, seems to reverse this, in HE at least.

Interesting that one of the most successful SaaS services to date,, would seem to be squarely in the provision of chore services….

I agree with the main thrust of your post Paul, in fact I was saying something similar on my blog yesterday in relation to in-house provision of blog and wiki platforms.

How you build a "service", with published service definitions and reference to service catalogs etc (in ITIL terms) when you're reliant on "consuming" a raft of external services is lost on me. However, if you want to be distinctive in your service offering - you must find a way of incorporating Web 2.0 apps into it. Furthermore, you need to be mindful of the mix between "core" and "chore", this is the theme that Joe Nicholls and I have been discussing recently (including at the very same Eduserv Foundation meeting - #efsym2008).

What appears to me to be evident is that Web 2.0 fits into what is the new "core", whilst everything to do with business efficiency and effectiveness ("chore") should have little to do with Web 2.0 and therefore outsourced SaaS. Whether Gmail or Google Docs (or the Microsoft offerings) count as candidates for the latter category is open to debate - but this may change over the next couple of years - particularly if the governance issues (as Chris Adie discussed) are addressed.

I think therefore that SaaS has a definite place to play in our service portfolio, in the new "core" - the personal working environment; if not the "chore" - the modern working environment.

I see you have interpreted 'backchannel' to mean the channel supplied by the event organisers. A number of delegates, myself included, moved over to other channels, notably Twitter (but also F2F chat in the auditorium), when we found that the CoverItLive channel was being projected on the wall behind the speakers. There were a number of comments which the authors would not have necessarily wanted to be presented to the 'public'. I recall a frosty reception to Chris's presentation from certain quarters.

I had no particular expectation on the day and did, I believe, manage to maintain my professional objectivity!

Re the comments about Chris Adie's talk at the Eduserv Symposium, looking at I see the following comments:

2:50 [Comment From john morse (online)] is he suggesting that insitutions restrict access to web (2.0) sites

2:52 [Comment From Michael Webb (at event)] @john - no, I don't think so! 2:52 [Comment From Brian Kelly (online-only)] @John Morse - don't think so. I think he's saying institutioins (IT Services) should adopt a risk approach and advise othgers based on this. 2:53 [Comment From john morse (online)] so more advise than control…

and as you said (the last words on the chat):

2:53 [Comment From Paul Walk] The risk is to the institution. Users don't generally care about this. It doesn't mean that there are, nonetheless, risks to institutions

I can't see any evidence to support your view that "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."

Maybe that's what you expected from the participants, but the evidence seems to suggest they were seeking clarification, and accepted that Chris was raising legitimate issues.

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