Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Alternatives to Word and control freaks

Good read in the NY Times, Yes, There Can Be Life After Word.

I’ve lived for a month without Word. And it has set me free.

Hehe. That's nothing! I'm coming up on my own two year anniversary of not using Word. For me, it wasn't a conscious choice. One day I just woke-up and realized, "Wow, I'm not using this anymore." That's the best way to break a dependency--you suddenly realize that you've moved on.

The only time I use Word anymore is to for opening a document that someone has attached to an email message. This emailing documents around is one of the least efficient ways of working that I can possibly imagine. It‘s only marginally better than a fax (remember those)?

This was back before Google enabled a feature which allows me to detach a .doc file directly, completely eliminating my Word dependency.

Thank goodness I don't work at Michigan State as they've outlawed cloud computing. Their new policy would set me back in time two years, and completely disrupt my preferred way of working. Just the sort of progressive stance you'd expect to see from a modern research university:

I am using Google Apps as part of a collaboration team with other Universities; do I have to discontinue this practice?

Yes, but we also need to be aware that there are some very complicated issues potentially involved. Faculty may be using these tools because they are part of a multi-institutional research collaboration and the Principal Investigator, elsewhere, has selected these tools for use. The tools are quite attractive because they generally offer features and functions not always available with even expensive products that we might choose to operate and appropriately secure ourselves. Individual faculty, for example, could decide to expose their own intellectual property to these risks (even though ill advised), but they should not do this with the intellectual property of others, of students, or of the University.

Many other research universities are currently very concerned about these problems and some are working on policies to preclude use of these tools for certain types of work.

Lovely! Please go to the site and read the rest of the "policy" interpretation. It reads like something that might have been written by the likes of the RIAA in their futile attempt to preserve their hold on the music industry. Yes, traditional sorts of IT units are also doing their best to preserve their obsolete business practices too.

Now contrast this with this from JP Rangaswami and his discussion of Web 2.0 and working right alongside the people you serve: Enterprise Blue Zero

Outside-in design is an absolute must. We have spent far too long insisting on a distinction between what the employee uses and what the customer uses; as the walls of the organization increasingly get porous, the distinction becomes false. Where I work, we are spending time and energy seeking to converge the two views, so that the customer and the employee exercise the same codebase. A goodly number of my guys are restricted to having the same applications access as our customers : how else will we know what our customers face?

Exactly! So how does a land-grant university with "their democratic mandate for openness, accessibility, and service to people" forbid its faculty from working amongst their constituents? Tell me how you are supposed to do your job behind the firewall?


Anonymous said...

I attribute some of this to the unfortunate turn of economic affairs in Michigan. People feel under siege and behave that way, trying to close off everything.

Some of it is the general conservatism in the state.

You can often just ignore it or skirt around it.

Remarkably, we also have a major Google installation here trying to push cloud computing. I guess that sale did not go so well.

Anonymous said...

At what point does business data become sensitive enough that it's OK to tell employees not to use Google Docs etc?

If not universities, what about private companies? Banks? Secret alien research facilities?

Anonymous said...


I do think we have people who are spending an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to preserve their empires.

It's too bad they aren't spending a little more time thinking about their mission and helping their faculty work in the most efficient ways possible.

It might also be good if they were thinking about ways to cut the cost of the computing infrastructure, and in the process thinking about how they might pass those savings on to their students.

How much has tuition gone up at Michigan State over the last two years?

Thanks again for commenting Bud!


Anonymous said...


I do think some of this depends on if you're a Theory X or Theory Y sort of institution. I definitely come down on the Y side.

Andrew McAfee has a good read on this right now-- the issue of things jumping the firewall.


Thanks for your comment!


Anonymous said...

Kevin, tuition increases have been marching along in the low single digits with some push back from the state legislature.

I generally agree with your points about cutting infrastructure costs. The costs of maintaining these infrastructures has simply grown beyond the means of most schools.

However, there are regulatory requirements that come into play, not the least of which is confidentiality of student records. Reading the contract terms you've posted here, it's possible to have concerns on that score.

If I assume good faith on the part of most administrators, I see them caught between (1) infrastructure that does not work but may be conformant to regulatory requirements and (2) infrastructure that does work but gives pause as to whether it is conformant. Where I think they are mistaken is that many delude themselves into believing it's possible to fix 1 instead of coming up with some formulation for 2 that keeps the troublesome areas out of the cloud.

There may be room for providers in this space that help universities figure out how to navigate towards 2. This might be a job for some unit within Google to address, and there is evidence that they are.

Anonymous said...

@Bud - interestingly enough - the MSU technote doesn't mention student privacy or FERPA. It only talks about business records and intellectual property.

Anonymous said...

@Jason, I think the two get confounded in most policy statements. Business documents are very frequently about students and have privacy concerns related to them. I think things like student homework are much less of a concern for administrators.

It's clear here also that there may be a fight over who owns work product. Some universities actually believe that they own intellectual work product.

So, I was just talking about one specific issue that could be legit, not attempting to cast the whole thing as legit.

stevenrconn said...

The caveat I found most interesting was this one: "The university would not agree to the indemnity provisions included in the terms of use, and furthermore faculty and staff do not have the institutional authority to accept the offered terms." Do university legal staff really read every single TOU for every single software application, website and service used by their faculty and staff? My guess would be that they actually read TOUs only when they need additional motivation for these kinds of restrictions.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure U's have the control they think they do. It's easy enough to set up parallel structures.

Also, I think most U's find email a pain to manage.

MSU may find themselves the big exception here.

Anonymous said...


Bingo! Great comment!


Anonymous said...


No, they aren't coping.


Arizona State, Northwestern, and many others are leading the way here. MSU and others are cocooning.


Unknown said...

Newsflash - MSU issues a press release with new measures!

(so it just deserved to be posted here, you know it did :-) )

Anonymous said...


Oh yeah, it deserved to be posted.

I just didn't want to do one of those Scoble things to you. You sure you're up for the traffic?


Anonymous said...

Just a quick final note. I actually introduced Google Apps to Eastern Michigan U. about a year ago. As a result of having interacted with admin staff, I have somewhat more sympathy for what they perceive. You don't necessarily have to agree with some of the resulting attitudes, but it pays to heed the concerns.

That's if you want to get something done.