January 29, 2009

Admiring Companies That Don't Blink

It's tempting to run with the mantra that every company must be transparent. With so many ways companies can communicate to us in real-time, we practically expect every single one to respond to our blog posts, our tweets, and our product demands. We find ourselves publicly lauding those developers who show up in our blog comments and promise change. We celebrate those companies whose founders we know on a first-name basis, and whose Twitter handle we have memorized. But there's also a part of us that finds the silence from companies in the tech space who choose not to be as transparent alluring, as it both adds to the mystery in terms of what they have planned, and gives a sense of confidence on their end that they don't have to change their product to match my every whim.

Apple is one of the best examples of a company whose vast wall of silence and secrecy spawns a vast network of rumor-seekers and speculation. Once limited to the dark recesses of the Web, guessing the Cupertino company's next move has practically become an industry tradition. You won't find an official Apple Twitter account. You won't find an official Apple blog either (though the Hot News page is pretty close). And you most definitely won't find an Apple representative in the comments of users' blogs, saying what features they will or won't add to the next release.

You could say the same, on various levels for many companies. What's going on at Google? Despite their many blogs and the ever-present Matt Cutts, it's not all that transparent. Most Google employees don't blog about their at-work exploits, and product development isn't usually that give and take. Microsoft? A different animal altogether. You could argue Microsoft never really understood the Web, and is a full generation behind the true Valley, so maybe they'll get it in the next five years, but they too represent a company that doesn't exactly kowtow to its users.

There are some smaller companies in the Valley that elicit the same kind of respect, because it looks like they are more willing to focus on improving their product than they are shouting down every naysayer, or responding to critics - as tempting as it may be, no doubt. Some of that can come from the founders' previous experiences, if they have grown up in companies where the focus was more on quarterly earnings and shipping product iterations than it was on asking their customer base for product roadmap ideas.

You can see different approaches in terms of how the strong companies respond to criticism, warranted or otherwise. The bad ones will try and shout you down, posting multiple negative comments in response, and might even post on their own blog saying how you are wrong. The good ones might instead say thanks for the advice, or quietly see your input and tuck the advice away for a rainy day.

Some people think I talk too much about Twitter and FriendFeed here, which is fine, but the reason they get so much attention is because we so clearly see their potential, and we use both services a lot. Of course, with high potential comes high expectations, and I have a tendency to want to push them both further faster, whether that makes good business sense or not. You might remember how at the beginning of this month I posted a long item practically begging FriendFeed to work harder at attracting new users. I stated my concerns that too many people were finding the system hard to use. The team could have done a few things - including saying I don't know what I'm talking about, or the reverse, saying I was right and starting to do all I said right away. Instead, Paul Buchheit explained the team's long-term view. His measured, quiet response was respectful and insightful, but didn't blink. My comments and those of others didn't phase him. He and the team quietly kept working. Twitter, in light of recent criticism as to how they've interacted with the developer community, has similar gone back to work and focused on their business. And I respect that. While I'd love to wave a magic wand to push these companies around, or see how closely their plans match my ideas, their focus is to be admired.

Companies like Apple and Google, for the most part, are "above the fray", and don't seemingly need to kowtow to their users in the way that struggling startups or smaller businesses do. So long as both companies, and Microsoft for that matter, continue to push out high-quality products, and grow their business revenues and profits, playing tit for tat on the blogs and Twitter isn't necessary. And they are a special case, in that their mere silence on a topic can stir even more discussion than a clear answer could. If some of the stronger Web 2.0 companies can cross the chasm to that level, thanks to their unceasing focus, then they have made the right choice. I may pound the table for answers, but secretly like it when they don't say a word.