Friday, October 22, 2010

Reject Apple's Information Sharing Model

My previous blog entry proposed a model for how Apple picks a product, and advocated emulating that model.  In this blog I examine another aspect of Apple's behavior and recommend rejecting it: Apple's Information Sharing Model.

What is Apple's information sharing model?

It seems that Apple's information sharing model is, "Share information with no one.  Keep your ideas, insights and everything else a secret as much as possible for as long as possible."

Why does Apple behave in this way?

The PBS documentary,  Triumph of the Nerds contains a dramatization of what it might have been like for Steve Jobs to experience Microsoft's go-live of Windows, which was all too easily perceived to be a cheap knock-off of the beautiful insights from Xerox PARC that his team laboriously codified into Mac OS.

Ever after, Apple kept new ideas and new products a secret until the last minute.

Several people nodded in agreement when I said in casual conversation, "There are Kremlinologists hard at work trying to divine what Apple is up to."  Yes, Kremlinologists -- the people who study very scary, very secretive organizations, like the Russian Kremlin, are studying Apple.

Why not share everything?

One powerful motivator for Free and Open Source is, "Many hands make for light work."  To be open with ideas and code is to invite helpful improvement.

Mike Masnick in his prolific blog postings at techdirt makes extensive analysis of policies that affect innovation.  He points at myriad research that supports the idea that openness helps and secretiveness harms the ability to grow new and better ideas, products and services.  In his article, The Grand Unified Theory On The Economics Of Free, he does a great job of describing how to achieve success, profit, and foster greater innovation going forward, by leveraging off things that should be free and open (like ideas, and files that are easily copied) to enhance and add value to what is scarce and what people will pay for (like time, physical objects, and access to interesting people.)  This article is a MUST READ for people trying to make up their minds about what to charge for and what to give away; what to keep secret and what to share.  But I digress...

Apple learned that openness is not good.  I suggest we should reject this insight, and look for ways to be open, but to recognize that it must be done prudently so as to prevent what I call, "Misplaced credit syndrome."

Misplaced credit syndrome happens when a small change to a big thing results in the maker of the small change getting the credit for the whole thing.

How often have you seen a sale fall through because the customer has decided the product is missing one critical feature?  Sometimes it's a really easy feature to add.  Some people won't buy a car unless it is a particular color.  While painting a car is a non-trivial activity, it's much easier to repaint a car than to re-invent the car, or to re-create the Mazda 6 Sedan from scratch.

In software, a big reason why companies guard their source as their, "Family Jewels" is because with software it is really easy to take a huge piece of software, make a few quick changes, and then sell it as useful to someone who would heretofore not have bought.

The dramatization in Triumph of the Nerds shows that even certain ideas can be re-implemented in a low cost way at critical points in the market cycle such that the hard work of product development by an organization is lost.

The solution here is not universal secrecy, but enlightened disclosure.

What is enlightened disclosure?

To explain what I mean by enlightened disclosure, I want to talk for a moment about delivering bad news.  When you have bad news to deliver, do you rush to the recipient and blurt it all out?  Not if you want to be kind about it.  You go to the recipient, you listen to where he or she is right now and you make as kindly a disclosure as you can.  You do this because you want to protect the other person as much as possible from discomfort.  You deliver the uncomfortable news to prevent bigger discomfort in the future. You make an enlightened disclosure.

Imagine then, how you should disclose your ideas.  You need to disclose them in a way that enables you to protect yourself.

For example, I believe that Apple is actively doing itself a disservice keeping its products SO secret that the sales force cannot say to big clients, "Wait a week before you place your order.  There may be important changes you will want to make."  Instead Apple regularly does post-hoc damage control with alienated customers.

There was a time when the American Department of Justice reprimanded IBM for announcing products it had no intention of selling so as to manipulate the market.  There are corporate lawyers who applaud Apple's secrecy as a way to guarantee the company never gets into that kind of trouble.  The lawyers are being silly.  Once when I was denied an educational licence to experiment with a piece of software written by a friend employed by a large company, I responded saying, "You have prevented the escape of valuable toothpicks by epoxying them to an Anvil.  Good bye!"

What should we learn from this?

Goodwill often generates more profit than the exposure to far flung liabilities generates losses.  Cognitive psychologists tell us the human animal overrates risk of loss and underrates chance of reward, so this sort of thing is a common failure.  But it is an error, and we should strive not to make it.

Once your product ships, or maybe a little before, it might make sense to share it so as to foster future improvement.  There is nothing wrong with this happening after go-live.  It is important that proper credit go to the persons or organizations who did the work.  That credit enables good people to do more good things.  Although a moral case could be made against theft, the argument gets pretty abstract when you're talking about theft of intangibles.  So I advocate the utilitarian argument instead:  It is in your best interests to make enlightened disclosure.

The value of openness can be measured.  See techdirt for lots of examples.
The value of scheduling when to be open can be measured.
It is worth doing.

So, seek to make a dramatic improvement on an existing product, but make enlightened disclosure of your ideas and your code.

1 comment:

  1. A sharing model developed by a company whose CEO carries ninja stars engraved with said corporations' logo on it on private flights prompts a moderate amount of worry in many a user's mind.