This week Sun Microsystems announced the purchase of the Swedish firm MySQL for the paltry sum of $1 billion, bringing together one of America’s biggest open source software companies with the firm that makes the software that drives so much of what happens online (including WordPress, the software running this blog). Why should people in higher education care, you might reasonably ask?
There are some fairly obvious benefits to this merger that techies will be happy about, but I’m not really interested in those. As and end user of open source software, all I care about is that it stays open source and therefore available.
But the conversation that has gone on around this merger in the European business pages has, I think, some very interesting resonance for higher education, because without realizing it, those having this conversation have raised some fundamental issues about our industry as well.
In a story in the International Herald Tribune yesterday, an analyst critical of the open source business is quoted as saying: “The problem with open-source software is you have lots of people using your software who don’t feel the need to buy the support from you.” Sun’s CEO Jonathan Schwartz counters this complaint by arguing that the open-source business model is growing in importance because corporations want diversity in software platforms. In short, they like not being locked into one vendor or suite of software.
I think higher education will ignore this trend at its peril.
In the past few months there has been a lot of buzz online and in the traditional media about top ranked American universities like Yale, UC Berkeley, and MIT making increasing amounts of coursework available–for free–online. Of course, one cannot obtain a Yale or MIT degree by using these resources to learn something, so these universities are like Sun or MySQL–they offer open source information for free, but if you want the premium product (called a degree), you have to pay.
I’ve already written about what I think the future holds for the academic course as the primary delivery system for knowledge and this new trend of making higher education more like open source software seems to me to be further confirmation of my belief that information technology is undermining the very basis of the business model in higher education.
Because this post has gone on long enough, I’ll stop here. Tomorrow I’ll speculate on just what I think will come next.