The value of being an underdog

February 9, 2006 | Leave a comment

I’m just saying, but after looking at this photo blog of food eaten at Google, I’d like to invite them to buy us out. Like, right now, no consultation required. I’ll figure out a way to pay Dave off.

Hunger does strange things to one’s self control.

In all seriousness, I do sometimes wonder what might have happened if we hadn’t open sourced the Elgg software and instead ran it as a hosted service, a la Nuvvo, or as a paid software package like MovableType. There are daydreams I have about fancy, glass-fronted offices with wacky desk toys and lots of people with close-cropped hair and thick black-rimmed glasses; Macs everywhere and fridges overflowing with mineral water and organic food. This isn’t fantasy, even in the realm of elearning; the KEEP Toolkit folks have the last bit, I’ve seen it, and the fires of jealousy have been eating at me ever since.

It’s occasionally been tough. I sometimes grumble at services featured on TechCrunch, which usually have no more under the hood than Elgg does, but a couple of million in venture capital and therefore enough money to pay professional designers and hire dogged publicists. We’re kind of the underdog … but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Of course, it’s not about slow-cooked kebabs, fridges full of Evian or rounded boxes with little cartoon characters. It’s about ethos, vision, and ultimately the usability of an idea. In terms of Elgg, we believed very strongly that the software itself needed to be flexible; editable, extensible, easy to implement and change. That’s the reason we went the open source route: not for any distribution or marketing reason, but because the license was actually an integral part of the core concept. One size does not fit all, and people have to be able to edit software they run in their institution to meet that institution’s exact needs. Learning software should fit around the teaching processes that already exist rather than the other way around. Anything else is like a writer changing the way they put words to the page in order to work around the inadequacies in their word processor; technology should always be subservient to people and their needs. Therefore as technologists we must always put the user experience first.

The more people you have working at the underlying vision of something, the more likely it’s going to meet a wider set of requirements. Open source is perfect for this, and for this reason I’m particularly glad we opened the software up; we’ve been able to send it to people for free, who in turn have suggested improvements and alterations, sometimes making those themselves or paying someone to do it. The user community, to some extent, has also become the development community; as the software becomes more popular, I anticipate that user participation in development will increase accordingly. Of course, most teachers don’t have the means to alter software to their requirements; they teach, not program, and often their IT support departments don’t have the programming manpower to support the changes they need. This is improving, but in the meantime Curverider exists to provide those customisation services (as well as hosting, either in the US or the EU); we’re also looking at integrating with various software packages and services, because half the point of flexibility is getting Elgg running with other systems an institution is already using.

I’m sure we could have got vencap funding for what we’re doing, but there’s no way we would have been allowed to release the software for free to the community. The project would immediately have been about making money for shareholders. Similarly, I’m sure we could eventually have got research funding, but I’m glad we didn’t; the project would have been research rather than an endeavour to produce real, usable software that people can actually install in real-life situations. The pitfalls of going this route are that some of our ideas are beginning to show up in software that people are getting lots of funding for, without attribution to us – I don’t like that, but at the same time I’m pleased that what we’re doing is of benefit to the community. The real value of being an underdog is the ability to push ahead and do something new without having to risk upsetting financiers or university policy-makers. Every day I look at the software we’ve built, the communities we’re fostering, and I’m proud that we built something that stands shoulder to shoulder with projects that have been funded with millions of dollars.

I’m also proud of the work we’re going to do over the coming years. Don’t get me wrong, the laurels I’ve got aren’t big enough to rest on just yet; we’re at version 0.4 and there’s a lot of work to do. But we’ve got firm plans for the future (my personal interest is in making the global learning landscape work, probably using XMPP), and there are some very interesting collaborations ahead. The people we’re talking to are some of the leading lights in education, which I wouldn’t have foreseen when Dave and I first knocked ideas about in our draughty old office. We’ve got a long way to go, but at the same time we’ve come a very long way – and I wouldn’t want to have taken any other route. I do think, in most fields, open source is the future of software development – for reasons of cost, flexibility and reliability – and many companies would seem to agree with me. Even states and countries: witness the state of Massachusetts’s swing towards open source software in government, or Brazil’s decision to abandon proprietary solutions.

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