October 25, 2009

There Is No "Osborne Effect" In Web Services

In the world of technology, practically no story of warning is better known than that of Adam Osborne's ill-fated promise of his next generation of computer models outperforming the current offerings. The story states that the result of his premature leaking was a dramatic decline in sales that led to the company's death. (Even if truth later proved the story somewhat incorrect) This, in combination with competitive pressures in practically all markets, has led to a culture of secrecy, undisclosed roadmaps and obfuscation in the industry, aimed to prevent a similar fate. But as I look at many of the products we use today, including Web services, which can be updated in line, and don't require a specific point purchase, this mentality is overblown - especially when it comes to the market leaders, for whom users' switching to an alternative is unlikely.

In May of 2008, I said that I believed a simple feature war between sites was "the wrong war." Users of products including top Web services like Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others absolutely benefit from the features offered, but they stick around thanks to their data being on each service, and the many connections they have cultivated - whether you define that as a community, or instead, as an audience.

If you are a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, Dell, EMC or Cisco, it makes a ton of sense to only discuss future products with potential customers who are not going to purchase in the current buying cycle, and do so under non-disclosure agreements, to prevent their whisperings from impacting your sales. But I think users of the many different Web services out there would benefit from gaining greater visibility into these companies' plans and priorities - which would serve as an early platform for feedback, provide guidance into how they could expect the community to evolve, and at the very least, show that they were continuing to improve the platform.

As you no doubt saw at the end of the last week, and from coverage this weekend, Facebook introduced a new look for their news feed. Some people love it, some people no doubt dislike it, and many are in between. But the hardest part for some is the element of surprise. Often when a site has a massive overhaul, they leave up a link to the previous version for those not yet ready to make a move - even if it is clearly outdated.

But if you think about it, are people going to switch from Facebook to MySpace or Friendster because of a UI change? Probably not. Are they going to use the site less often? Maybe, but not in a dramatic way. So Facebook can be pretty secure in knowing that their users are going to stick around.

In contrast to the secrecy, I have been impressed of late as to the transparency seen from Twitter in terms of the company's rolling out feature enhancements, and telling users in advance what is to come. The company has talked openly about their new ReTweet API, and also talked about the addition of Lists. Twitter has learned from its previous mistakes that abruptly made changes, impacting users and creating something like a mob.

Twitter, despite incredible competition for mindshare from Facebook and others, is confident enough that their tipping their hand isn't going to create a competitive problem - and easing users into new features makes it seem much more collaborative. But not everybody believes in this model. During the hubbub around Facebook's future plans for FriendFeed, co-founder Paul Buchheit said "we don't pre-announce things, so for now all I can say is that there's good stuff on the way." His update to the FriendFeed community was both reassuring and not reassuring at the same time - showing they were not asleep at the switch, but giving no clarity at a time when many are looking for some. Would his telling us a few features on their plate for Facebook have upset the apple cart any?

As noted before, Feedly, the next generation start page powered by RSS, has a public roadmap. (Here is their 2009 offering) Feedly is confident enough to show you what they are working on months in advance, even if there is potential slippage, and even if there are competitors who might integrate similar features into their own plans. But there is no potential for an Osborne Effect here. You either use Feedly or you don't. It's very unlikely that you will look at their future plans and walk away because you don't like the product direction - and it's less likely that you will write down their itinerary and make a competing offering.

If I am Apple, I would keep secrets. But if I were running a Web service, and was confident I could deliver on my promises, I would be sure to open up to the users and let them know what my priorities were early, rather than hiding under a cloak of mystery. Users need guidance and confidence that they are part of something that is continuing to improve, and won't be abandoned.

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