Two of the leading players in the global educational technology market are to merge.
Washington DC-based Blackboard is to acquire its direct competitor, WebCT, in a $180 million (£102 million) deal that was announced last week.
The two companies are neck-and-neck in marketing virtual learning environment technology to UK universities. Together, they will have about 3,700 clients.
Blackboard promised that WebCT clients would not be left out on a limb.
Michael Chasen, its chief executive officer, told The Times Higher : "We think there is a great opportunity here. One benefit of the combination is that we are creating this very large network of products to link universities that have e-learning strategies, to enable them to share best practice and communicate better, whatever kind of technology they are using.
"We will make sure all our additional products work on WebCT. Clients will have the opportunity to buy additional functionality and have access to Blackboard's hosting facility in the Netherlands. We will continue to support both platforms."
Blackboard committed itself to developing a new standards-based product suite that incorporates the best elements of Blackboard and WebCT solutions.
"Our focus remains on meeting existing client needs while working to develop a new innovative suite of applications," it said.
The deal is likely to be finalised by early next year, and each company will operate independently until then. The companies promised that normal service would continue.
Carol Vallone, WebCT's chief executive, is to continue with the combined company as a consultant. She will advise on client relations and strategy.
The merger took higher education technology experts by surprise. There had been no hint of a deal in recent weeks.
The announcement came after this week's supplement on IT in higher education had gone to press. An article about virtual learning environments (pages 14-15) describes the two companies as competitors.