With the recent release of Learn with Mobile’s latest RESTful and webhook APIs, I found myself feeling very grateful that open interoperability and integration have started to become standard practice for leading cloud service providers.
Yes there is still software in every industry where its vendor continues to refuse to play nicely with others. If you work in a large company or SME its probable that your LMS still fits this category, even if it’s only a few years old. But leading newer services all seem to understand the value of sharing and being open with each other.
Sharing and APIs have become a “must have” feature for the L&D thought leaders that will guide learning software choices in the next few years. But with so many large providers in the learning industry still lagging behind, it’s worth sharing some history that helps us understand the risk of accepting this behaviour.
It’s not so many years ago software industry giants almost succeeded in taking this openness and opportunities away from not only learners, but all businesses as IT started to grow in its impact. We all need to learn from past mistake to empower those who will be creating the future.
An explosion of choice
It’s fair to say world is full of apps. Just between Google’s Play Store and Apple’s AppStore there are now more than 5 million apps available for you to choose from that can do everything from keeping you connected with friends, to ordering your pizza.
Likewise, over the last decade we have also seen an explosion in online cloud services as a replacement for traditional software for both business and individuals, many of which provide free options for personal or small business use.
The combined effect of these two trends have had on software in the last ten years cannot be overstated. Between them they have helped to return our use of technology to its roots where everything is designed to do one job, but sets out to do it really well.
In theory now, we can always choose the best tools to solve each problem or goal we have. But this only works if everybody plays nicely together.
Like children we all started by playing nicely
There has never been a time in technology where it’s been more important for everyone in the technology playground to play nicely together. What may surprise you though is that this is not a new problem at all. In fact it’s a problem Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie had already solved in 1969 as they were working on one of the most influence technologies of all time: Unix.
The theory used in the design of each app in Unix was remarkably similar to the design of today’s apps and cloud services: do one job really well, and then share with others so they can pick up where we left off.
In Unix the sharing was done through pipes and streams, now days apps share through RESTful APIs, and web hooks, but the core principles of well behaved software is the same. Unfortunately we had to go through decades of badly behaved companies who didn’t want to share, before we could get back here again.
If you first got involved with PCs in the ’90s or 2000s it may be hard to believe that all software started off in such a friendly environment. But software has its origins in an environment where everybody listened to one another, built on each other’s ideas, and everybody would always play with anybody else. Much like young children in a playground, the only things that really mattered was if we were going to have fun while working together.
Playground bullies and the teenage years
As the IT industry matured and PCs started appearing offices, houses, and homes, software hit what is probably best described as its teenage years.
Large technology companies started to create huge pieces of software that did too much. Software that didn’t focus on doing a single task well, but rather on doing lots of things, just about OK. The idea here was simple, if we do lots of things OK, people will start to rely on us for everything. Once they start using us for stock, they will have no choice but to use us for their order processing, and their accounts, and… Or once they start using us for HR they’ll also have to use us for e-learning, and facility management, and…
Why would anybody use an “OK” service if a great service was available as an alternative? Well most of this software started off by being really good at just one thing. But vendors started to bolt on additions that were at best “OK” and at worst unusable. Before long like a teenager, applications from major vendors stopped talking to everyone that wasn’t in their friendship group. The once open sharing became replaced with grunts, groans, and gestures and simple refusal to communicate or share anything with anyone. The goal for companies selling software was that once you had committed to one solution from a vendor you were locked in to them. No longer could you choose the best tool for the job and have everybody get along. Now you simply had two choices: use your existing vendor for everything, or pay somebody to input and manage all your data (at least) twice so you had the right information in each piece of software you used. Commercially for those producing the software, this plan worked well in the short term and a lot of money was made. For everyone else in business though it meant IT become nothing but a growing headache with its unsatisfied demand for more money.
It’s was these teenage years that created giants such as SAP, Microsoft, Sage, and similar large companies many of which went on to face anti-trust cases throughout the world. They controlled our HR, our Office Suites, our ERPs and CRMs, our accounts, our learning, and they wouldn’t even work with each other, never mind with anyone else
As the internet gained more attention, other companies started to pop up with friendly pubic images, such as Google, Facebook, and a re-vamped Apple, that spoke nicely about “playing with others” but only if you played the games they wanted, how they wanted you to, and you let them control your data and every aspect of the game.
Whether an old-style bully that kept demanding more and more of your lunch money, or a new style one that was friendly as long as you did what they asked, and then shared your secrets behind your back; these IT companies managed to hurt all industries at a time where technology should have been enabling people, not restricting them.
By actively choosing to refuse to work with anyone else, the giants of the IT industry took away consumer choice and created a set of playground rules that still cause problems and impact productivity in many businesses today.
The situation got so bad that the open source movement organised itself as a world-wide activism to fight against these trends and create software built on openness and sharing. I, like many others, poured countless hours year after year into open source. We shared a genuine concern that consumer choice and freedom was it risk, and if we did nothing would be entirely removed from technology within only a few years. We started driven by fear, but became empowered by sharing. We thrived on each other’s ideas. We knew we could make a difference by working together. We wanted to ensure the idea of technology that was open and shared with others never died out.
Reaching adulthood and Restoring Choice
As software reached its adult years, empowered by the surge in internet usage, and the renewed focus on sharing from open source as its activists entered businesses, people started demanding technology that worked together again. An environment where small companies with big ideas to could start succeed was created. People started to talk to each other and provide services designed to do one thing, really, really, well again.
In this more friendly environment ideas started to snowball. Changes took hold that led to todays 5 million plus apps and numberless cloud services. More importantly these changes once again restored genuine choice to both businesses and individuals on how to use technology.
Championed by services such as Xero, Salesforce.com, and Learn with Mobile. Great software that does one thing really well again, has for a few years now even started to disrupt industries previously dominated by bullies. With modern services using open RESTful APIs, easy to use web hooks, to talk to each other. A new attitude has emerged that sees sharing and interacting with each other as a feature, not a risk.
There’s even websites such as “If this then that” (https://ifttt.com/) that exist simply to connect all these friendly services together in a way that works exactly how you want it. Personalised experiences are becoming the norm.
Some of the giants have started to react by being more open and playing nicely again. Microsoft is a great example of a bully company that has turned around not only its image but also its behaviour and services. Once an example of the worst behaviour in IT, it is now an example for good to others who were once its peers in the playground. But not everyone wants to change, and it’s going to take a long time for all of the giants to do make the transition into the new reality.
What does it mean for me?
Whether your looking at software to solve your learner’s next problem, improve your business performance, create a coaching culture, replace your LMS, or really looking into any software or service, you should ask potential vendors one key question “how well does this play with others?” People will be used to this question by now, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone. The historical giants are falling way behind others in this support. But what should you do if the service you are looking at doesn’t provide an open API for others to integrate with? Simply move on and find something that does!
Even if the unfriendly software has a killer feature or two, if it won’t talk to others you will end up severely limiting your vender choice and wasting a lot of money. What’s worse, by getting locked in you’ll find yourself falling ever further behind your competition in the years to come. Far better to find a service that does almost everything you want well and invest in working with them to create a better alternative to that killer feature than to get locked in all over again.
That’s what the thought leaders in software recommend. It’s what the thought leaders in L&D recommend. And the same advice is finally being heard from thought leaders in all industries.
Technology, like good learning, should empower, not restrict.