One of the popular misconceptions about open source is that it’s all about the source, i.e. that anyone and everyone can tinker with the actual source code of the application to introduce desired features, etc. In fact – as proprietary software vendors like to point out – very few people actually ever touch the source code. As an example, apart from a few cursory looks just for the sake of curiosity, I’ve never touched the source code for any of the applications that make up my desktop. But does this mean the source doesn’t have value? No. What tends to get lost in the binary “it’s all about the source code / no one needs source code” arguments is what open source enables: transparency. Just because I might not as an individual read/update the source doesn’t mean that a proxy for me can’t; I rely on others in the various communities I’m a part of to gist down source related issues for me, which is possible only because they have access to the source. The process is then more or less transparent.
Transparency, of course, is a term very much in vogue due in large part to the rise of trends like corporate blogging, which in theory makes organizations more transparent. While the notion of transparency may be suffering from the hype cycle just a bit, I think watching events unfold transparently is beneficial from both the internal and external perspectives. It helps build trust, may assist in the fostering of new relationships, and lessens the ability for others to inject Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) into your project/business/etc. In the spirit of transparency, here are a few examples from recent weeks that I found interesting.
- Transparent Communications: As most everyone found out late last week, IBM is making a big push towards introducing transparency by giving an official nod and approval to blogging. Following in the footsteps of competitors like Microsoft and Sun, IBM is relatively late to the game here (with all due respect to the pioneers within IBM like Bob, Catherine, James, and Sam), but there’s still plenty of time on this particular clock. It will be fascinating to see what new voices emerge from the sea of employees in the pay of Big Blue, but I’m more interested to see what impact the empowerment of individual voices has on IBM’s culture. I know there’s a substantial amount of concern about the potential for blogging missteps within the often conservative (in a corporate sense) firm, but I found their new blogging policy surprisingly open. Like their competitors, IBM appears to “get blogs,” understanding that at the core, it’s not about the technology or product announcements, but transparency. Whatever happens, it should be fun to watch.
- Transparent Design: The idea of open design processes is hardly new; anyone familiar with organizations like the JCP, OASIS, or the W3C is intimately – and potentially overly – familiar with concept. But in my experience, most projects are opened once there’s working code or a prototype; put differently, they’re opened once certain critical design decisions have been made. Indeed, not having working code is often taken as a warning sign of a potential vaporware and/or dead-end project. That’s why I find what DeWitt Clinton, an A9 engineer (and fellow Williams alum), is doing here (1, 2, 3, 4) so intriguing. The project has been opened from literally from Day 1, and readers are helping shape important project facets such as the API. I’m curious to see whether or not earlier transparency is a trend we’ll see more or less of in the open source world going forward.
- Transparent Marketing: I feel like the vendor presenters must when they have to begin every deck with that boring legal disclaimer slide that reads “The following is based on forward looking information” blah blah blah, but anyway for the sake of disclosure, Eclipse is a RedMonk client so take the following with a grain of salt if you so desire. One of the things that I’ve been pushing vendors to do for a while now is transparent product launches. In my opinion, the traditional marketing product launch is not particularly friendly to some audiences – technical ones in particular. While I make no judgements on something like the XBox 360 launch, as the consumer market is not one I know intimately, I know from the analyst, engineer, and press perspectives that the notion of a huge launch event for technical products has significant drawbacks. First, everyone can’t be at the event (and no, webcasts don’t do a lot to minimize that, as there’s little opportunity for interaction, networking, etc). Second, many of these events aggregate announcements and then release them in one big flood; this can be overwhelming for analysts and engineers, if not the press, and even important bits can get lost in the shuffle. Last, they do not involve or engage the people you’re trying to message to; launches are usually designed to talk at someone, not with them. For these reasons and others, I was very encouraged to see Ian Skerrett, the marketing director for Eclipse, come to some of the same conclusions and push for a transparent launch to Eclipse 3.1. Actively engaging with your intended audience during the run up to a particular launch event is not an idea without its own set of drawbacks, but I think the positives far outweigh the negatives.
To be clear, I’m not contending that transparency is the answer to every question, the solution to every problem. But I do think that in this day and age, when word of mouth networks have achieved remarkable levels of efficiency, that enterprises and individuals alike should should consider making transparency the default, rather then the exception. The benefits to such an approach are becoming clearer by the day.