I am sure this isn’t news to anyone, but it appears as though much of the web is in a constant state of beta. Think Gmail and its constant little reminder that this isn’t a real service … heck it could go away at any moment. I use it, my wife lives in it, and lots of people at the University forward all of their mail to it. Does anyone care it could disappear? I use Flickr for all my online photo storage and sharing … I do this even though I have a .Mac account that is not a “gamma” product like Flickr. I notice lots and lots of people spending time in there … the list just rolls on — you know, services that we rely on that we just turn the other cheek to the reality of their potential lack of staying power.
In higher education we seem to have some very strict definitions of what a service means … in my higher education administrator’s mind a service is a fully supported tool that has close to five nines reliability. The five nines thing is questionable in reality, but plays well as a goal. I have to tell you that I am now seeing what it takes to support user populations that number in the 100s of thousands I am much more careful of the words I use to describe things. Take the Podcasts at Penn State project … do we have a podcasting service here at the University? Sorta … our iTunes U implementation is in pilot and so are all the supporting pieces to the podcasting stuff going on here. That means there really isn’t any true PSU HelpDesk support, no 24/7 server management, and there certainly aren’t any money back guarantees that it’ll be a five nines environment. But at the end of the day, should that all matter? At the moment, we plaster the word pilot all over the thing, but we have gone from about 35 faculty podcasting last semester to well over a 100 this semester … adoption is happening simply because we have taken the plunge and created an opportunity.
With the growth in the beta mentality of Internet users should we start a new classification of Internet Tools? Maybe instead of talking about our services, we should talk about our emerging opportunities. So as we look to release the first bit of the Blogs at Penn State project we could look at it as just an emerging opportunity for members of our community to engage in. Not a full service. Could we create a new classification of opportunities that aren’t judged by their total up time or a promise that they will always be available — even over the long haul?
Can we create more agility of we work to establish a set of experimental opportunities that our communities can simply engage in while they are available? The good ones with high adoption rates would then get the attention they need to become services … if it works for Google Labs, why can’t it work in an environment where technical resources are spread very thin? I’m not talking about creating environments that would compromise end user security, privacy, or data … the building blocks to manage and protect identity are well established in our enterprise. I am simply asking if we could take a step back from the idea that everything has to scale to our total user base out of the box.
This is me just thinking out loud here … anyone have any thoughts on it all? With a change in mentality could we all offer a greater experience to our users? Or would we be cheating them by not making it all bullet proof? Just a set of questions that have been banging around in my head for a while now … thoughts?