My colleague Marieke Guy has organised a panel session entitled “Dealing with the Commercial World: Saviour or Satan?” at the IWMW 2007 event. The abstract for the session begins “With the introduction of variable fees Universities have entered what education secretary Ruth Kelly called “a new era”. Financial departments have had to find more creative ways to meet the sector’s growing competitive demands and those working within universities have had to take a more business-like, customer-focused approach to many aspects of their work as they compete for students.

The aim of the panel session is to address the tensions which often seem to occur within the higher education sector when dealing with commercial companies.

Marieke has asked me to take part in the panel. My view is that the commercial vs. non-commercial software is no longer a major philosophical debate: we are all New Labour in our thinking, these days. And the open source debate is primarily about fitness for purpose, rather than open source ideology.

User-Owner / Commercial-Non-commercial axesMore interesting, I feel, is the owner versus user dimension. I’ve tried to illustrate this in the accompanying diagram, where I suggest there may be four sectors of interest:

A: An emphasis on the service owner, using non-commercial tools. The extremes of the sector may represent the view of the ‘open source fundamentalist‘.

B: An emphasis on the service owner, using commercial tools. The extremes of the sector represent the view of the ‘vendor fundamentalist‘.

C: An emphasis on the user, using non-commercial tools. This is where the user-focussed open source developer would like to be positioned

D: An emphasis on the user, using commercial tools. This may be the sector in which an organisation which makes use of commercial products sees itself.

However rather than reducing these sectors to such simple divisions, of more interest might be to explore the tensions between organisations will a user focus and those which take a more managerial approach.

Quality content: Members of institutional Web management teams have always prided themselves on developing systems and deploying software which can ensure that the content on the Web site conforms with a variety of rules.

Quality experience: However we are starting to find that some institutions are now emphasising the importance of providing a quality experience for its users, and, providing the content is not illegal, give less of an emphasis on the quality of the content.

Compliance with accessibility rules: Institutions may have policies which state that all corporate pages will comply with WCAG AA guidelines for Web accessibility. They may feel that this policy will ensure that they will not be sued under accessibility legislation.

User-focussed approach to accessibility: However some institutions may feel that WCAG guidelines are dated and, in some areas, inappropriate and will be willing to infringe the guidelines if this can enhance the accessibility and usability for their target audience.

Mandation of use of open standards: Institutions may insist that Web services comply strictly with HTML and CSS standards.

Pragmatic approach to use of open standards: Other institutions may prefer to use Web services which comply with HTML and CSS standards, but may be willing to drop this requirement if the service can provide a useful function for the institution.

Bans based on ideology: In a recent discussion on the web-support JISCMail list there was a suggestion that HTML email should not be allowed as it is often used for marketing purposes.

Providing flexibility: In a response to the discussion on use of HTML in email others argues that (a) marketing is an acceptable activity and (b) it is desirable to allow end users choice on how they wish their email to be delivered.

ANdrew Aird's slide - IWMW 2002Of course the situation is much more complex than pictured here, and there are many cases in which strict compliance with rules may need to be enforced. But the boundaries are shifting, I feel. Much of the talks and discussions at previous IWMW events, for example, have covered areas in which Web management teams would like greater managerial control (with Andrew Aird famously suggesting back in 2002 that “Web Team has ultimate say-so. No buts“).

There’s a need for the Web management community to rethink its values and the approaches we have traditionally taken. We’re not living in the 20th century any more, after all!