Sunday, February 12, 2006

Catching Fire . . .

I met the good folks of Refresh Phoenix this past week at the Common Ground Coffee Shop. Refresh Phoenix is a really welcoming group that's interested in all things web and such. For example, one of the guys I met there does web work for lunarpages, the provider that hosts this blog. Really enjoyed the conversation with everyone. I was trying to get people fired up about the role technology can play in Arizona education. Lots of lively discussion. Very fun.

From there it was off to ISU to speak at my friend Jim Bernard's globalization course. The course is intended to get engineering students to think about the implications of globalization. No equations, so it’s quite popular. JB and his partner in crime Mark Rectanus started the course last year, and offer it to both on and off-campus/distance students.

This is the course's second year and it has grown quite a following. This year's guest lecturers are a who's who, including Robert Reich, Jim Duderstadt , and the great Ray Kurzweil.

But they can't get marquee names to speak every week, so the second team gets called in from time to time. My lecture was titled "It's the End of the World, How Do You Feel?", and it was a ramble through some of the threats that globalization poses and the role that I hope technology and technologists will play in meeting those threats. It was great to be among friends talking about the challenges we face and how university students are going to solve them. I got a chance to see some of my old pals and hang with people that know my name. It was a warm reception despite the chilly temperatures.

From Ames, it was off to Apple on the "0h-dark thirty" the next morning, to learn more about ITunes University and other elements of Apple's K-20 strategy. (K-20 was a new term for me...Its K-12 + 4 years of undergrad + 4 years of grad school I guess). Whatever else you may think about Apple, they are the coolest people on the planet. It was a meeting of Apple's University Executive Forum, and a chance for me to meet 20 of the lions of higher-ed IT. Bunch of really smart folks, who were also very friendly to the newbie. A great trip.

The tools that Apple has put into the new version of iLife are making it possible for ordinary humans to make first rate content. It’s clear that a big part of Apple's strategy is to be the machine of choice among people who want to create and share top-drawer web content, and to widen the number of people who can do that by making the tools so accessible.

Another part of Apple's strategy is to leverage in any possible way the extraordinary success of the iPod and its companion client/web service iTunes. For example, the new iTunes-U is full of possibility for distributing all these new forms of educational content in eminently accessible ways. Combine this distribution play with a scorekeeping system that lets you find out how students and faculty use the content and we may be looking at a real game changer. The air is alive with possibility.

As part of the trip, Apple took us to visit their Data Center. I almost skipped it (seen one big air conditioned room full of machine racks, seen 'em all.) But I'm glad I decided to go. Because now I can say "I went to the ITunes Music Store the other day", and by that mean that yes, I actually, physically went to the location where the songs and videos are stored and served up, as opposed to just visiting the ITunes URL.

Looking at all those racks did made me week in the knees for a minute though. Shivered me timbers. As Buzzz (the engaging and talented Brit that runs the Center) told the story, the current Apple Data Center is the direct result of a strategic decision by Steve Jobs himself to bring Apple's hosting capability back in-house, "in-sourcing" the data center management to position Apple to be a leader in providing web based services.

Readers of this space will understand my fears immediately. If the eminently venerable Jobs brought those machines inside, its because he considered them Core. And you'd have to say he was right, since the hosting expertise is what enabled Apple to nimbly deploy ITunes and single-handedly redefine electronic content distribution.

Meanwhile, here I am calling the same capabilities Context.

Doh! Can you say retraction?

But on further reflection my timbers settled right down again. Jobs is certainly a visionary for thinking of the running of a data center as a Core competency for a hardware company, but only because of Apple's innovative application of that expertise to develop a service that rewarded his company in the marketplace. It's that innovation that makes it Core for Apple (get it?).

But one man's Core is another man's Context. That's what makes a horizontally organized industry work in fact. Jobs and company focus on the hardware and associated web services necessary to deliver songs, videos and podcasts to the world in a manageable and profitable way. ASU's smart play is to leverage Apple's infrastructure investments to integrate this new and rapidly expanding capability into one of its Core businesses, higher-ed instruction. Its not part of ASU's overall strategy to be a piecewise content provider to the world. Our gig is providing an integrated educational experience to undergraduate and graduate students. So I figure it makes sense for us to leverage Apple's hosting and distribution efforts, not repeat them. Standing on Apple's shoulders would let us leapfrog most of the problems associated with hosting content (which people always tend to under-estimate), and instead focus our energies on creating this new content and integrating it well into our academic experience. Working with Apple would help ASU keep its eye on the ball, and concentrate on adding value to the educational experience instead of the nuts and bolts of media deployment.

ASU's Core is not about replicating or shadowing innovative services like Apple's. Our technology Core is to make rapid and intelligent use of THE RIGHT SET of innovative technological capabilities and services to create the richest educational experience we can. Rapid, so we can quickly get to the scale of the institution, achieve leadership and build a buzz. Intelligent, so we can deploy new capabilities in an integrated way, that is easy for the community to adopt and that maintains our ability to progress to even better things in the future, while leaving as little work on the cutting room floor as possible.

That's a huge challenge, with a valuable payoff along the way. When we do it well, we attract more students, and/or make our current students more successful.

The history of Napster is instructive here. Leave aside the copyright issues for a second. A single, relatively simple piece of software -- released for free, without any marketing budget -- spread from no users to over 70 MILLION users in a little more than six months. Several industries are still reeling from the change that piece of technology wrought. Napster is an example of how technology can create an exceptional, fundamental change simply by opening a door and making a new thing possible. A breakout play, a blitzkrieg, a game changer.

That's how fundamental tech change happens -- in a whirlwind. There will be similar breakouts that will dramatically accelerate the role technology plays in higher education.

Maybe iTunes-U will be one?


Salman,  February 12, 2006 at 10:28 AM  

"Our gig is providing an integrated educational experience to undergraduate and graduate students."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

I think that we are living in a time where "corporate IT" companies and university's technology programs are experiencing a merging of interests and find a lot of common ground. We at ASU may be thinking about what the "Big Guys" (Google, Microsoft, Apple) are doing on their side of the fence and how cool it would be to incorporate their technology on campus, but the truth is they are doing the same thing.

This weekend our house hosted a "friend reunion." Two of these family friends were high standing Microsoft employees. In our conversations, they both seemed very interested in what is happening on campus and how students are using technology (the other parts of our conversation dealt with ASP vs PHP and my plethora of Apple paraphernalia, oh the joy...).

One man's Core may be another man's context, however, I think at this time the interests of tech industry and the technological interests of a university are coming together. What’s more, I think both sides are in a position to benefit from the other. Good times...

Jake,  February 12, 2006 at 4:49 PM  

Just wanted to say that I enjoyed your talk/rant at ISU - great to see you again.

Adrian Sannier May 10, 2006 at 8:59 AM  

My reply is long overdue...I'm sorry for that...

I covered my reasons for hosting my blog outside the university in a previous post (

Up until last month, my blog was hosted on a domain I paid for myself, so clearly a net add to the U. In February, we released a beta blog and wiki solution for the ASU community, and are anticipating migrating this and other ASU blogs to it, but for the moment a couple technical subtleties mean external hosting for a little while...

Not sure that ASU can provide hosting services, particularly with the range of features (mySql, php, etc...) that student organizations are likely to want more cheaply than external providers.

Nate,  July 14, 2006 at 2:39 AM  

So what exactly defines our core vs. context? How can we tell when we're working on something that's core and when we should be finding the door because you've determined that we work only on context?