UC Berkeley review of web apps

With the growing weight of Google’s and Microsoft’s web-based application bundles, many colleges and universities are beginning to seriously evaluate whether they could save money and provide better services by contracting with one of these providers. While not many universities have made this leap, a few notable ones have, including Trinity College, Dublin.

A very good review of Google Apps for Higher Education can be found in an Oxford University presentation [pdf] which reviews the tiered offerings, pricing, and other characteristics of Google’s software as a service.

This year, intrigued by these possibilities, the University of California Berkeley (UC Berkeley) undertook a review of the current offerings in collaborative tools [link to pdf].

As the prelude to their report says: “In addition to examining the benefits and drawbacks of outsourcing campus messaging services, such as email and calendaring, to one of these vendors [Google and Microsoft], the committee also explored their associated collaborative tools offerings, such as collaborative writing; social bookmarking; photo, audio, and video sharing; and mapping, which may also be of considerable campus interest.”

The review team was quite aware of the possible architectural advantages of these services.

The fact that these tools are based on Web 2.0 technologies and will offer easy-to-use APIs to exchange data would allow us to integrate these offerings with other services and connect them to repositories of valuable data, both from other vendors as well as existing on-campus services. One representative example would be the potential to integrate calendars across multiple services, as well as to tie these calendars in with campus services such as course registration and administrative deadlines.

Ultimately, UC Berkeley decided not to pursue outsourcing these functions, although they feel that monitoring and re-evaluation is prudent. Citing from the report, its key findings and areas of expressed concern are:

  1. The current vendor offerings for email, calendaring, and file sharing are less technically capable in certain important areas than the offerings currently in place on campus and are therefore not sufficiently compelling to induce us to consider switching from offering our own services at this point.
  2. Improvements to existing services [email, calendaring] may be feasible at acceptable costs.
  3. Both vendors’ offerings raised concerns over privacy, concerns which a number of committee members described as “showstoppers” at the current time. Several other members felt that these privacy issues might be manageable, if addressed.
  4. The vendors’ collaborative tools offerings beyond the email, calendaring, and file sharing applications are not yet sufficiently compelling to make it worth overlooking the limitations in the other services.
  5. This is an extremely rapidly-developing area in the IT industry with tremendous potential to deliver compelling collaborative tools. We should continue to monitor it closely, with an eye to discovering when the services offered become more compelling and if our major concerns are resolved.

  6. In any scenario, it is important to develop a better and deeper understanding of the user needs of the campus community before considering implementing any of these services, whether for email, calendaring, and file sharing or other collaborative tools. — End of report excerpt

My own impression from brief conversations with the report’s principals is that the combination of privacy and legal issues (e.g., subpoena handling and indemnification) were by far the most critical concerns, with this eminent public university insufficiently assured that its population’s and institutional needs were being adequately addressed.

A fascinating report, and a thoughtful examination by a leading university of these applications at an interesting point in the evolution of this software.