It was only a year ago when a stunned and shaken John Baker, President and CEO of Desire2Learn, announced at the Desire2Learn Conference 2006 in Guelph, Ontario that his small company had been sued by Blackboard for patent infringement. Blackboard had successfully patented a trivial concept with broad applicability and was now bringing the hammer down on its competitors.
A maelstrom of controversy quickly ensued in the higher education community, culminating in a strong public letter by the Educause Board to Michael Chasen, Blackboard CEO. The harsh letter expressed "deep concern" about Blackboard's patent action, challenged the basis of the intellectual property claim, and urged the company to place the patent in the public domain and also to withdraw the infringement claim against Desire2Learn.
A year later the patent controversy in the higher education community has largely subsided. After the "open source community" led by the Sakai Project extracted a concession --- in the form of a pledge by Blackboard not to assert its patents against open source software and home-grown course management systems- -- the higher education community and Educause withdrew from the fray, content apparently that its interests had been protected. (The Ex Parte patent re-examination filed by the Software Freedom Law Center was a quick hit- and-run affair. It has been of no use to Desire2Learn (it probably hurt their cause) and it certainly doesn't address any of the thorny issues surrounding educational patents.)
The upshot: Desire2Learn has stood alone to fight the good fight against Blackboard, which in comparison is a very big fish with a market cap of 1.25Billion and enjoys a de facto monopoly in the course management market in higher education.
Baker and his leadership team has also managed to keep their eye on fundamentals. The company has been on a growth fast-track (recipient of the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 Award in Canada), showing a 2,117% increase in revenue over a five-year period. Faced with the challenge of of having to evolve a company culture into a more disciplined service delivery organization, Baker's most impressive accomplishment during this change has been to retain the innovative energy of the original leadership team while adding seasoned professionals with expertise in QA, product development, services delivery, and project management.
Overall Desire2Learn's growth strategy and focus on execution is going very well indeed. And in its epic battle with Blackboard the company has not only hung in there but gotten stronger.
(Disclaimer: The views on this site are mine and mine alone, not those of my employer.)