Sneaky Commercial Software
Timothy Berners-Lee, who created the protocol that enabled the web to develop, is now the director of the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, an international association that helps determine how the web will continue to develop. That's reassuring to me.
That's also why it was a little strange to see a new W3C Patent Policy which opens the door for patents. Timothy Berners-Lee is a well-known opponent of commercial barriers to the free exchange of ideas on the web. But he is also in favor of certain categories of free market competition among for-profit entities and believes that there is a healthy role for commercialization in the evolution of the web. What he and the W3C are saying, if I understand it correctly, is that methods and procedures built into the standards that define the web infrastructure should not contain any patented elements. However, patented applications and content which exist on top of the web infrastructure are acceptable, perhaps even encouraged.
I'm not sure the distinction between applications and infrastructure can be defined as clearly as the W3C policy suggests, but who am I to question Timothy Berners-Lee on a matter like this? I mean, it can't be like no one ever thought of it before. The inseparability of aps and ops was a key element of the Microsoft case, maybe the key element. Stephen Downes is dubious: Call me a sceptic: I still don't think the proposal is strong enough, and I think we will see the day when some company manages to sneak a royalty-bearing patent through the W3C standards process. To the detriment of us all.
I don't know much about the W3C standards process and how easy it may be to sneak a money patent through it. But I do know that in e-learning, some applications function like a platform and a set of standards. It's easy to point out how unhip and un-cutting-edge big applications like WebCT or Blackboard are. The fact is, universities are now investing major bucks in making them an inseparable part of their overall infrastructure. Commercial products with rapidly expanding licensing fees.
In a sense, these two particular products did sneak through the normal standards process. If they had entered the marketplace as Enterprise E-Learning systems, universities would have studied this new phenomenon for decades before moving decisively. So instead they entered the marketplace as innocuous little applications with price tags under $5K. Thousands of institutions purchased the low-cost annual licenses without thinking too much about it. Thousands more faculty members started making their first extremely primitive electronic learning objects, and assembled them into the first online embodiments of university courses. The point is, they made them in the WebCT or the Blackboard environment, observing their standards. Not that the work couldn't be ported by brute force, but increasingly that has become unrealistic -- because So Many courses have been made.
Faculty, underpaid graduate students, and some instructional designers leveraged the commercial software companies into enterprise status at universities all over the world. In return, the enterprise is paying a good deal more for the privilege. I suppose if the universities receive good value for the expenditure, that'll be that. If they do not, the door will be open for an Open Source alternative, if one is sufficiently developed and widely supported. And people will start talking about getting commercial software out of the e-learning infrastructure. It would have been so much simpler to have started with Open Source in the first place, but it will never happen that way.