in Learning, Moodle, Open

Online Educa’s Platinum Sponsor Fronter is a Closed Source Proprietary Product

The most Deceptive Sign in LA

The most Deceptive Sign in LA

Warning, this is a bit of a rant…

I hate false advertising. That is why I was delighted to read that Apple had to pull an iPhone ad recently (see: What the banned iPhone ad should really look like).

I am currently at the Online Educa in Berlin where Fronter is the Platinum sponsor. I found their brochure in the conference bag and was appalled by what I read.

Fronter has decided to adopt the discourse of open source software without actually delivering an open source product. Recently, this has been a strategy for many companies who produce proprietary software and are losing market share to open source products. This is the first time that I have seen it done in such a blatant way though.

Some quotes from their brochure:

The essence of Fronter’s Open Philosophy is to give learning institutions the benefit of an open source and open standard learning platform – while at the same time issuing guarantees for security, reliability and scalability, all included in a predictable fixed cost of ownership package.

And:

Fronter’s Open Platform philosophy combines the best of two worlds; innovation based on open source, with guarantees and fixed cost of ownership issued by a corporation.

Finally:

Open source: The Fronter source code is available to all licensed customers.
Open guarantee: In contrast to traditional open source products, Fronter offers tight service level agreements, quality control and a zero-bug regime.

I am sure the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) would not appreciate these untruths. So let us do some debunking.

The term open source actually has a definition. The Open Source Definition starts with the following statement: “Open source doesn’t just mean access to the source code.” It then continues by listing the ten conditions that need to be met before a software license can call itself open source. Many of these conditions are not met by Fronter (e.g. free distribution, allowing distribution of the source code or allowing derived works).

These conditions exist for a reason. Together they facilitate the community based software development model which has proven itself to be so effective (read: The Cathedral and the Bazaar if you want to know more). Just giving your licensees access to the source code, does not leverage this “many eyeballs” potential.

I really dislike how they pretend that open source products cannot have proper service level agreements or quality control.SLA’s and QA is exactly what European Moodle partners like eLeDia, CV&A Consulting, MediaTouch 2000 srl and my employer Stoas (all present at this Educa) have been delivering in the last couple of years.

What is a “zero-bug regime” anyway? Does it mean that your customers cannot know any of the bugs in your software? Or is Fronter the only commercially available software product in the world that has no bugs? I much prefer the completely transparent way of dealing with bugs that Moodle has.

Fronter people, please come and meet me at the Moodle Solutions stand (E147 and E148). I would love to hear you tell me how wrong I am.

15 Comments

  1. Great post. I cannot agree more. I think they are trying to incite fear about open source derived from pretty typical misinformation. It’s good that they are sharing their source code, but I agree, it does not make them open source, it shows the power open source has had on providers of proprietary products.
    Have fun at the conference, it’s even generated a bit of a buzz here in Australia through the twitterverse.

  2. Hello Mully,

    Thanks for your comment! The director Fronter was allowed to do a little keynote speech this morning. Fronter was literally announced as “The largest European Open Source e-Learning Platform”. That is when I left 😉

    Kind regards,

    Hans

  3. Great and insightful post. As you rightly state: this strategy is a trend amongst the proprietary software vendors…. Some other vendors that come to mind with some kind of same strategy: Microsoft, Blackboard… Oh, somehow the word SURF also comes to mind 🙂

  4. Hi Hans,

    You post is challenging for the Fronter people. I remember being at a customer site and looking at some marketing material. The customer was interested in buying Fronter because it was Open. BTW they heart the info on the last OEB. I had to do some research on a new system. So Fronter was on my list.

    I couldn’t understand the Open statements. So I decided to call Fronter to clear up some issues. It was a kind of unrealistic phone call. Like a Monty Python sketch. *exit Fronter, new entry on the list*.

    Doing business starts with trust. Not with misleading information.

    Best regards, stay alert and keep us informed.

    Marcel

  5. Suddenly this post does not show up in Google’s results anymore. I leave the reason to why this is the case to speculation and have asked Google to reinclude the page in their index and search results…

  6. I have been working with the Fronter company for 10 years now and here is my independent perspective. All of the statements made about the Fronter Open Platform are factually true and Fronter has been very successful with it, providing many of the advantages of open source licensed software and eliminating most of the disadvantages. There is no misleading information at all. Fronter does not provide an open source license but that is not mentioned anywhere. In fact most of the competition in the educational e-learning market does not provide an open source license, and are fully proprietary without access to the source code. The other thing is that Fronter provide a managed services platform to 95% of the customers which eliminates most of the IT issues encountered when deploying e-learning software. There is a lot to say for their model which is quickly becoming more popular in the corporate and government sector as well.

    • Hello Göran, thank you very much for your perspective on this issue. It is great to have somebody comment on my post who disagrees with me!

      Let me start by saying that I do not have any issues with Fronter as a product. I haven’t had a chance to really look at the software, but when I read the non “open” parts of their marketing materials it seems to be a conceptually interesting product delivered at a good pricepoint.

      I guess where we differ in opinion is what we consider to be misleading. I would consider the image of the roses in the post to be misleading even though there is no factually untrue information. Roger Larsen of Fronter was presented at the Educa keynote as the “CEO of Europe’s largest open source e-learning platform”. If you decide to look at the statement literally it isn’t misinformation, if you look at the intention of the statement, I would really consider it less than ethical.

      I am really curious to know: In what way does Fronter “provide many of the advantages of open source”?

      Maybe the all statements about the Fronter Open Platform are factually true, but not all statements about “traditional open source” are true. The sentence: “In contrast to traditional open source products, Fronter offers tight service level agreements, quality control and a zero-bug regime.” is what we would call in Dutch “sfeermakerij” and in English probably FUD.

      I look forward to continuing this discussion at some point in the future and you are always more than welcome to comment on this blog.

      Kind regards,

      Hans

  7. I have a slightly different perspective also in my position as working for an international e-learning software company. Open source is not so black and white, having on the one hand fully open source free software and on the other hand closed commercial software. There are many different open source licensing models in the market and mixed models of free and commercial. Also there are many organizationas and companies using a mix of commercial and open source software also in the educational market. Even Moodle is making money via its partners, and i think that if Online Educa would invite Martin Dougiamas (CEO of Moodle) he would also give an enthousiastic story about Moodle and the company and rightly so. In the end for an organization to fully implement Moodle or Fronter would probably not make a lot of difference from a cost perspective.

    Fronter has a lot of the advantages of Open Source although it is admittedly (by Roger) not for free, such as the way it is being developed, the underlying platform, the way customers have influence on the product and many other things. For the money the customers pay they get a local support organization and service level agreements for the software and hosting by the vendor itself which is not to be underestimated from a customer perspective.

    As you mention the most important thing is more the didactal model offered by the tool(s) which is very European and based on collaborative leraning (social constructivism) and close to recently developed Web 2.0 ideas.

    From my perspective Fronter deserves some more credit and interest. It is a good and fair alternative for the education market compared to its competitors. Again, i’m not affiliated in any way to the Fronter organization.

    • Hello Göran,

      I think we are talking a bit at cross purposes here. I do not equate proprietary – open source with commercial – non-commercial. I mean, we all have to eat! Making money with software is fine. Using a closed license (or no license) for your software product is also fine. What is more important to me is the gratis versus libre distinction.

      I am sure it is possible to give your customers some of the advantages of open source without an open source license. However your customers do not get many of the other advantages of open source: freedom number 2 and 3 from the four freedoms, vendor independence, the possibility of forking the software in case something happens to the vendor (congratulations to Fronter for being bought by Pearson by the way!) and more.

      To me these things define open source. Maybe I am too principled in this case, but according to the definition of open source Fronter’s license is not on the list of open source licenses. Thus, in this case it is black and white: they should remove the misleading texts from their brochures.

      I like your emphasis on the didactical model offered by the tools. If Fronter is as deserving of credit as you say, then they really don’t need this false advertising. Wouldn’t you agree?

      Finally a link to two related blog posts. First, an earlier discussion between Miles Berry and Roger Larsen about the same topic. Second, a blog post from Jef van den Hurk which references the discussion here. Jef is right in saying that I do not talk about the quality of the product itself. I didn’t think that would have been fair because I really don’t know the product. It was their marketing practices that really ticked me off and which I wanted to address!

      Kind regards,

      Hans

  8. Right Hans, the discussion about licensing models is completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. There is no false advertising, or are there any marketing practices for which Fronter should be condemned. Let’s display an open mind here, especially now e-learning in general starts to be taken seriously in the market, whether it is in education, corporations or government.

    Cheers
    Göran

  9. I had a conversation with Roger Larsen the Fronter CEO at BETT, the largest education technology show in the world. He was also confusing commercial, proprietary and open and clearly didn’t want to confront the issue that Open Source has a clear definition and the wording in his marketing is indeed misleading. He got diverted in every direction from having to pay his programmers to his Linux advocacy. None of that is relevant. The only issue here is the use of terms that have a generally accepted meaning in a way tat is likely to mislead. It doesn’t matter if Fronter is good, bad or indifferent, whether its CEO is a Linux developer in his spare time or if Blackboard is 10 times as evil. What matters is accurate semantics that clearly do not misrepresent the product in the eyes of potential customers.

    • Hello Ian,

      Thanks for sharing this. I wholeheartedly agree with your last sentence!

      I like the look of the Ingots by the way…

      Kind regards,

      Hans

  10. Hi. Sounds strange maybe to leave a reply four years after hte article was written, BUT: I was asked to make a lecture about LMS (I know, it’s a boring subject) and I was trying to include a description of some of the LMSs I know. When I searched for info about Fronter (that I discovered years ago in OEB too) I found only their website (very ‘small’, indeed) and NO sreenshots online. Nothing at all… Maybe I didn’t search in the right way, but I was surprised byt his. And it’s pretty funny to check their website ‘case studies’, that say more or less nothing at all. But I remember a presentation at OEB where they said that Fronter was used by a huge community in UK. Does anyboday remember this?
    Anyway: they’re no open source at all.

    • Hey Matteo, thanks for your comment! I guess you don’t find much because they’ve been acquired by Pearson and don’t seem to do much with the Fronter brand anymore. Check here for some more information: http://www.pearsonplatforms.info/products/#fronter. I also remember the story about the big rollout in the UK, I imagine that has now also become a Pearson initiative…

      • Thanks a lot Hans! I think you’re right, probably they’ll abandon completely Fronter soon or late and ‘move’ to LearningStudio.
        Moreover, I have a doubt: if I well remember (but I’m not so sure) until 2007 Microsoft and IBM were Platinum/Gold sponsor of OEB. Then they in 2008 disappeared and Fronter came. I found no trace of strict connection between Microsoft to Fronter but I always had the doubt that they somehow ‘collaborated’. I even remember some speaker from IBM in the parallel session supposed to talk about web2.0 and then (‘by chance’) mentioning Fronter as the ‘perfect solution’ as a web2.0 learning tools collector… I don’t know, maybe I just suffer from control paranoia!

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