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Open Source Industry Analysis: Not Such a Silly Idea Anymore

If you track such things, as we at RedMonk most certainly do, there’s been a lot of discussion of the industry analysis business of late. I know the topic is of less interest to some of you, and most certainly amounts to navel-gazing on our part, but the reason I think it’s worth discussing is the not the what, but the why. And the why, as far as I’m concerned, is about being aggressively open. Make no mistake about it, we’d love to become the MySQL to Forrester’s Oracle, the JBoss to Gartner’s BEA/IBM, the Linux to IDC’s Microsoft, and so on. We’re trying to push openness into our business at every opportunity, and believe that that will become more and more of a differentiator as time goes by. That notion – one of the underlying precepts that we grow our company on – was considered absurd, even laughable by some as recently as a year ago. We’re not hearing too much of that these days.

The highest profile look at the subject was probably Larry Greenemeier’s InformationWeek piece on the subject, entitled “Blog-Based Analysts Shake Up IT Research,” an article I’ve been meaning to comment on since it was released. The article, itself a follow up on an earlier deconstruction of some of the dirty little secrets of our industry, featured ourselves and a number of other smaller, open analyst firms that are trying to change our industry from the bottom up.

Are blogs critical to this effort? Greenemeier says yes, but the well informed Barbara French of Tekrati says no. She says in part:

Take Redmonk as an example. Redmonk is an interesting analyst firm because of the topics and positions its people adopt — not because its people blog.

I take her point, and truly appreciate the kind words, but I can’t agree. I personally believe that blogs underpin everything that we do, and are – probably more than any other single factor – responsible for whatever success that we’re having at the moment. Why? Because the topics and positions we adopt are shaped in large part by our blogs; the reactions we get public and private, the traffic volume they generate, and the impact we see them have on product direction and strategy. Nor can we take all the credit; our blogs are about the participants as much as they are about us.

Barbara is undoubtedly correct when she says:

Blogging did not unleash analysis “fast, free, and with a heavy dose of attitude” or the readiness “to pick a fight with IT vendors or one another”. These aspects of the analyst business have been part of the territory since Gideon, Howard, and Patrick staked the first claims.

But here’s what’s new: while research with an “attitude” has unquestionably been around since time immemorial, and picking fights with IT vendors comes naturally to most analysts, that research has rarely been available for free, and in a medium that facilitates interaction and commentary, rather than sermonizing.

When he interviewed me, Greenemeier asked whether or not being smaller and open rendered us immune to the types of the ethical and conflict of interest questions that they skewered the bigger firms for previously. My response was simple: not at all. If anything, we should be under more scrutiny since we unapologetically derive the vast majority of our revenue from the very vendors we analyze. How then, he asked, do you answer such questions – how do you inspire trust? By being open, I replied. Which is where blogs come in.

Unlike a research report that might be published behind a for pay firewall and thus be available only to a small subset of the technical community, our research is freely available to any and all comers. It can be and often is read and commented on widely, by those who agree and disagree with our positions and conclusions. In a transparent world, I asked, how long do you think we’d survive if we were nothing but shills for the firms that pay us? Just go read James’ commentary on IBM’s Software-as-a-Service strategy or mine on NetBeans, and see if you think that we’re unduly influenced by those customers. We say what we like, and work only with firms that can respect that – turning down not insignificant volumes of business as a result.

I’m still somewhat amazed, on a similar note, that our client disclaimers are sufficiently rare to draw praise from very sharp people such as David Berlind (who himself should be considered an analyst, and a good one), but I think that’s just another indication that the industry analysis business is very much like the software business was prior to the rise of open source. As I told one of our customers just yesterday, clients of analysis services are going to have to ask themselves just how open their advisors are and what that might mean to the advice they receive. Forget the ethical dimension for just a moment; just ask yourself whether you’d like to work with analysts whose research has been disseminated and dissected in a very public fashion, or that which is conducted and published behind closed doors. It’s not that great research can’t be conducted that way, it’s that communities are always smarter than individual people – so why not leverage them?

One of the other common criticisms of blogs is that they are intrinsically self-selecting; consumed by and relevant to a tiny audience of blog-aware technologists. As another analyst put it to me at RSDC, “blogs are just read by other bloggers, aren’t they?” Maybe true, maybe not. Certainly it’s not debatable that the overall percentage of RSS aware individuals – even in the technology industry – is small. Growing quickly, but still small. Despite that, I think dismissing blogs as only relevant to a tiny audience ignores what perhaps is their greatest strength: the ability to achieve remarkably high rankings with search engines. I’ve written on this subject before, but as a quick example click here. There’s no logical reason I should be the number 1 listing for a query comparing Cingular to Verizon, but there I am (at least at press time). This ranking is hugely important, because on any given day, about 80 or 90 percent of our web traffic arrives randomly via Google. They may not even know what a blog is, but they’re reading the research either way. Openness, it would seem, has its benefits in visibility.

If you’re looking for more discussion of these issues, you might start with the commentary – or should I say analysis – from the Gillmor Gang, in their Gartner Gang-uP shows (parts 1 & 2). If you’ve got a finely tuned sense of irony, you might be inclined to see both the content and the medium as an unintended validation of their conclusions, but I’m an American and thus have no appreciation for irony.

What I do have appreciation for, however, is openness. I would never argue the case for openness or transparency on an idealistic “information wants to be free” basis – I’m too pragmatic. Nor would I contend that everything must be open. But I think that when it comes to research and analysis, open is generally better than closed, and it would seem that there are some smart folks out there that would be inclined to agree.

In other words, I see no reason to believe that open source will have any less of an impact on the analysis business then it does on the software business. And if history is any guide, the analysis firms that don’t believe this are in for a rude awakening.

Categories: Open Source.

  • http://aqualung.typepad.com Ric

    As I recall, Google assigns a higher ‘relevance’ ranking to blog posts rather than static web pages; plus the commenting and linking associated with blog posts (the ‘conversation’) helps as well.
    This higher Google relevance all by itself is a good reason for making RedMonk research available via blog, as you’ve found.

  • http://duckdown.blogspot.com James

    The one thing that I wish Larry covered more was the thoughts of large enterprises. There is lots of frustration on this end as well on the quality of research that exists…

  • http://www.redmonk.com/jgovernor james Governor

    yes indeed rick its a rather lovely side effect. and as the world transitions to more attention-data based models we’ll be ready to ride that wave, and have some early rank advantages