Transparency: The New Default?

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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.


  1. Tell me, I will probably forget!
    Show me, I may remember!
    Involve me, and I will understand!

    What you define as transparency sounds more like an attempt to build community, because communities have strong staying power when organized around a technology. In the case of IBM, it sounds like they're trying to buy a community, but that's a topic for another day. What's really interesting, is how a community developed around Windows despite Microsoft's opacity in the early days of its lifecycle. Perhaps too much transparency limits the development cycle of a community because it seems contrived and because those that would form the community don't have to rely on anyone outside the vendor, hence they never bond, hence the community never forms.

  2. As you mentioned I am trying for a transparent launch at Eclipse. However, I think Eclipse has also excelled at transparent development. In February 2005 Eclipse published the Eclipse Development Roadmap (http://www.eclipse.org/org/councils/roadmap.html) that details the project plans, themes and priorities and architectre of all the top level Eclipse projects. I don't know of any other software vendor or open source community that makes this level of information public.

    In addition, as we approach the release of Eclipse 3.1 the development team has published their 'end game' document that details the development milestones for the next 6 weeks. http://dev.eclipse.org/viewcvs/index.cgi/%7Echeck

    Sure I am biased but in my experience in the software industry, providing this level of detail is preyy impressive. The end result is that we have a community that is very engaged. For example, last weekend alone we had 20000 people download our new milestone release.


  3. JP: i think actually it's transparency that begets community. your Windows is a good example of an exception to that rule, but i think Windows is a unique example for any number of reasons (monopolistic positioning, for one). transparency is not the only way to build a community, but it definitely helps, IMO.

    Ian: agreed. the level of transparency within Eclipse is certainly admirable, but what i was trying to point out in Dewitt's example is that it's early transparency. and actually, i think things like Beagle are at least as transparent if not more so, in that most development gets done on list. but it's all good, and Eclipse certainly deserves credit for opening itself up.

  4. Some nice thoughts here on transparent marketing and launches. We've been having a similar conversation in the OpenSolaris pilot project for almost year now in one way or another. Just how do you launch a massive open source project in a transparent way from the perch of a publically-traded corporation? It's more complex then you think when you consider just how utterly closed the launch process has been. Time will tell, I suppose. I bet that traditional launches will die out soon enough, though. Which would be nice. 🙂

    You point out that Eclipse is trying to do a transparent launch. I wonder if Eclipse, as a foundation, is more free in some respects to actually implement transparent launches than corporations are. Do you see a distinction between the two organizations? I'm not sure there is, but there very well could be.

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