software development as a function of content organizations

All the hubbub around the failure of The Daily reminds me of a thread I had going this past summer on tumblr about the possibility that content and technology can no longer be considered separately, and what that means for higher ed. I am going to try to collect all the relevant posts here.

First off, let’s look at this quote from Daring Fireball (emphasis mine):

The Daily launched with a tremendous amount of publicity, aided and abetted by Apple itself — Eddy Cue was on stage for the announcement. But the app sucked. Daily issues were almost mind-bogglingly slow to download, and even once downloaded, animations and page turning were slow, and navigation was confusing. The Daily garnered a lot of attention right out of the gate but had software that left a very poor first impression. That was a huge mistake and missed opportunity.

In the time since they launched, their software improved and download sizes shrunk, but it still wasn’t great. They never seemed to treat software engineering and design as a primary function of the publication. They were competing as much against Flipboard as they were The New York Times, but didn’t seem to realize it.

Then there is this note from Buzzfeed’s CEO that made the rounds this past summer:

Most publishers build their site by stapling together products made by other companies. They get their CMS from one company, their analytics package from another, their ad tech from another, their related content widgets are powered by another, sometimes even their writers are contractors who don’t work for the company. This is why so many publisher sites look the same and also why they can be so amazingly complex and hard to navigate. They are Frankenstein products bolted together by a tech team that integrates other people’s products instead of building their own.

It is hard to build vertically integrated products because you have to get good at several things instead of just one. This is why for years Microsoft was seen as the smart company for focusing on just one layer and Apple was seen as dumb for trying to do everything. But now Apple is more than twice (!) as valuable as Microsoft and the industry is starting to accept that you need to control every layer to make a really excellent product.

If it is not just the content but also the platform that wins, I start to wonder if that is true for educational ventures as well.1

Cole Camplese responds:

As soon as I read this I thought it was obvious in the vertical he is speaking about. What I wonder is why we are in a rush to abandon that idea in the higher education technology space — I mean I get that we are not a technology company, but if we are a content organization (or a media company as Brad suggests) then shouldn’t we work to construct the tools that support the creation, storage, management, and sharing of that content? We used to and then we realized we couldn’t do it better, but it seems to have put us in a very different kind of mess … LMS’s that don’t inspire, blogging platforms crippled by our own internal politics, classrooms tools that only work most of the time, websites that are confusing at best, and so much more. Is it time for a totally vertically integrated start up University?

Then there is this snippet from the verge on a story about Yahoo under Marissa Mayer:

Mat Ingram tries to make the case that media and technology are separate or at least separable. At Yahoo, Netflix, and The Verge, that simply hasn’t been true.

I can buy into the fact the media companies are now technology companies. Coursera and the other MOOC ventures are applying media company mindset to education. Even if they are serving fast food now, they are in a position to move beyond that and define and create a truly web-native experience for education. I am not saying they will, but their investment in technology and their scale could result in something much more game changing than we are seeing now.2

Chris Long pulled this quote from Jeff Jarvis:

I have been arguing that news organizations should reimagine and rebuild themselves as platforms for their communities, enabling people to share what they know and adding journalistic value to that. As such, they should study technology companies.

Again, what is being discussed is primarily news media, but I think the same can apply to higher ed. Universities need to develop platforms and not just throw a bunch of technological odds and ends together to conduct education.3

In thinking about the need for institutions to provide their own platform, and not just use existing commercial tools for generating community, I am reminded of a post from Derek Powazek:

Every community-based site in the history of the web has essentially been a stab at creating a social network. Most of them fail as businesses, with the rare exception of small, lucky communities that become self-sufficient but not exactly prosperous. What if that’s just the way it is?

Makes me wonder if creating a small online community for something like, say, a university, actually does make sense – a funded “tumblr: campus edition” so to speak.4

Jim Groom picked up on this and lamented universities “aping the current zeitgeist of ‘innovative’ tech companies trying to build successful start-up platforms”:

Education needs to return to the space of teaching people how to conceptualize and build these things rather than get in the business of building and maintaining such a service. The struggle to make sense of this space and but it in some cultural context is the service we provide, we must not forget that!

And lastly, I think my final comment on that same post of Jim’s serves as a nice summary of my thoughts on this matter:

Where I think I was on the way to arriving to with my post is that digital platforms are going to be a much bigger differentiator for institutions going forward. They could be systems like those used for the new corporate MOOCs, centralized services for expression and discourse like UMWBlogs, or a complete build your own model like I hear Jim wondering about. The platform affects how education is conducted. The model of throwing up some open source tools for centralized services or asking people to build their own still needs tons of work. The tools need to get way better. What I wonder is if higher ed institutions need to invest in building them.