Thursday, May 07, 2009

Blackboard Hearts Angel

I haven't posted anything about the Blackboard purchase of Angel during the first two days of the hub-bub because as my mother once told me, "If you don't have anything snarky and bitchy to say, just don't say anything at all." As I was preparing to write this post (and while mulling over her words of wisdom), I decided that I need to set the record straight regarding this much-maligned purchase. (CC angel photo by adselwood)

What a fabulous move by Blackboard! Once again, the Blackboard suits in the white hats have pulled a marvelous coup in the LMS market. Current Angel clients should embrace the fact that they have now been adopted by the mothership - where there will always be a bird in every pot, a car in every garage, and a lawyer in every chair.

I'm totally perplexed by all the negativity being expressed by various members of the education community. I even heard a few people remark that Michael Chasen appears to be a complete slimeball in this video from the fabulous Fox Network. I beg to differ. Mr. Chasen appears to me to be a completely sympathetic character; one who is only striving for the betterment of education and one who is not at all slimy. Just knock off all the talk about him being slimy. Clearly that is not the case. I see no slime whatsoever. (And it's certainly not his fault that the woman interviewing him is absolutely clueless.)

I have many friends at colleges and universities that are Angel clients. I have received emails/tweets/wall posts from several of them who want to cry on my shoulder and are expecting my sympathies in return. Get off my shoulder. Get over it. Put down that bottle of whiskey. This is absolutely the best thing that could have happened to you. The Angel platform is certain to live a long and fruitful life now that they have Blackboard's financial backing, BB's cadre of dedicated employees, their best-in-class architecture, and their much-deserved patent on the basic functionality of the LMS. Without this purchase by Blackboard, Angel was heading to a certain death and then where would all the Angel users be? Think of this as your BAILOUT, and Obama didn't even have anything to do with it. Or did he?

At Inside Higher Ed, both the article and the comments are mostly negative about this purchase. Don Gardner, Associate Vice President for Academic Technology at California State University, Long Beach is quoted as saying that Blackboard has provided "consistently poor customer service" and that Long Beach was in the process of switching to Angel because of Angel's superior customer service. Note to Dr. Gardner: since Blackboard is buying Angel they are also buying Angel's fabulous customer service. Therefore, you are going to be getting that great customer service from a company that is 12 to 15 times larger than Angel was, which means of course that you can expect the customer service to be even better than what you were hoping for under Angel - maybe even 12 to 15 times better.

In that same article, Fred Lokken, Associate Dean for Teaching Technologies at Truckee Meadows Community College in Nevada said he objected to the "predatory" way that Blackboard is fighting with Desire2Learn over patents. "Is the idea to own the market so that we have no choice?" Yes, Mr. Lokken. That is exactly the point. That is the American Way, and Blackboard is the poster child for illustrating the American Way of doing business. Every b-school student can learn a lot from watching the shrewd moves that Blackboard makes in dominating the education market with their superior technology and innovative innovations in the user interface and tool set.

"Chasen stressed that the attraction of Angel to Blackboard was respect for just the qualities that Angel's fans praise: teaching tools and customer service. He pledged that Angel customers would continue to receive strong support, that the new version of Angel that is coming out just as this deal is being announced would in fact come out, and that pricing would remain stable." (also from IHE) In this section Mr. Chasen lays out the the basic strategy for the Angel and Blackboard platforms. It reminds me greatly of the old days of General Motors. Pound for pound, Buick cars were always more expensive than Pontiacs. Many of the features of Buicks and Pontiacs were very similar, but Buicks were the big dogs (not as big as Cadillac, but big enough) and Pontiac was the younger, less mature, less expensive sibling. Considering the price differences between Blackboard and Angel, and considering that Mr. Chasen has stated that the pricing would remain stable, I think it's safe to say that LMS customers will now have the choice of buying the more expensive Buick Blackboard or the less expensive Pontiac Angel. And wouldn't those also be great names for cars?

Commenter Dane said "As one who has used Blackboard, I have found that, apart from whatever failings it has in service, it is one of the worst course management programs there is." Dane, you sound like a bitter, broken man. Clearly you are misguided in your opinions about Blackboard. Don't be a hater.

Commenter Kim says "Hmm ...Rapidly escalating prices, ignoring security issues, regularly purchasing competitors, aggressively pursuing patent protection, and deteriorating customer service. Should we not be concerned about the possibility of abusive monopolistic practices?" Yes, we should not. Just move along. Nothing to see here.

In a phone interview, when asked about whether this acquisition would have a stifling effect on competition, Mr. Chasen told Campus Technology "Actually there's more competition today with course management systems than ever before." That does sound perfectly reasonable to me. I have no doubt that Blackboard is actually pursuing a strategy of encouraging more competition, not trying to squelch it. In fact, it sounds like they would love to have a whole bunch of tiny little companies nipping at their heels. It helps keep them more agile that way, sort of like the postman.

Commenter Robert Blechman said "Given our recent economic history why would anyone think that one company controlling 80% of the market is a good idea? Who is going to raise the appropriate anti-trust objections to this merger?" Not me Robert, and not you either. You see, Angel was (still is) a privately-held company which means that most of the anti-trust legislation doesn't apply to this transaction. Translation: Blackboard can buy Angel and no one can stop it. Now that's smart positioning in my book.

Anonymous commenter said "I find it interesting that there has not been a single BlackBoard customer that has come to BB defense. Not one positive comment. It says a lot..." It says nothing. I have no doubt that these blog and news sites are deleting those positive posts because positivity just doesn't sell. There are lots of positive comments about Blackboard, they just don't show up on any public websites. Trust me.

And besides, just to prove you wrong Mr. Anonymous, consider this post to be one long, very positive comment in Blackboard's defense. Blackboard hearts Angel, and I heart Blackboard.

Do you have a mirror? (.dias tsuj I gnihtyreve esrever yletelpmoc tsuj woN)


Jared Stein said...

Thank you for setting me straight, Barry. Here I was about to castigate the name of Bb and burn an effigy of Mr. Chasen. Instead, it seems, I should be burning with a desire to attend Bb World.

The Campus Technology article really did a great job highlighting Chasen's brilliance (though perhaps it didn't mean to). At one point it notes:

"Chasen also said that although there were regulatory issues to be addressed in the prior WebCT acquisition, there were none this time around. Angel, he said, has far fewer clients than WebCT did at the time of the buyout (roughly one-third the number)."

So regulatory issues are based on quantity of clients, even though Angel is the #2 LMS in higher ed? Surely this means that Bb is now cleared to purchase up the next and the next and the next competitor before they have a chance to tip the scale toward regulation.

VWestergard said...

Love the Stewartesque stylings, Barry! This blog was worth waiting for (and btw, my mom used to say that same thing). I actually think that Jon Stewart could do a great impression of Michael Chasen, with that smirky, "so exciting to see you're buying my story" confidence Chasen exudes.

D2L is next to be purchased, you know. Sign me up for the Pontiac Angel.

Mike Caulfield said...

Beautiful post.

I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.

[Insert frantic but strangely patterned blinking here...]

SilentTristero said...


Absolutely right on! Anyone who has the least trepidation about this need only consider AOL's acquisition of Netscape. What a win-win development that was!

Just look how Netscape has blossomed!

Anonymous said...

I'm hearing a rumor that the first scheduled upgrade to Angel is full support for Proctor 2.0 ( AKA the Troy Device).

Any truth to that?

Barry Dahl said...

Jared - regulatory issues disappeared under W, and they haven't risen to the top of BO's agenda so far, and probably won't anytime soon. Nobody cares about this crap anymore, apparently.

VW - My folks owned lots of Buicks over the years, but this time I'd pick the Pontiac.

ST - I still use Netscape (SeaMonkey). Doesn't everybody?

Anon - Remote Proctor 2.0 - oh no, Big Brother just got an update? Twice as intrusive and twice as creepy?