Secrets and silences: should you develop in public?

Google Glass is a great example of a company talking about a future product, and letting us get some insight into the shifting direction it's taking long before it arrives in our hands. But transparency isn't for everyone…

IEEE Spectrum has published an interesting interview with Babak Parviz, head of the Google Glass project, conducted by Elise Ackerman. It’s a fascinating look at just how fluid this project is right now – a very vivid example of experimenting in a quasi-public way. This exchange gives you some idea:

IEEE Spectrum: It’s been around six months since Google last provided access to Google Glass prototypes. What has changed about the product since then?
Babak Parviz: We constantly try out new ideas of how this platform can be used. There’s a lot of experimentation going on at all times in Google. We’re also trying to make the platform more robust. This includes making the hardware more robust and the software more robust, so we can ship it to developers early this year.

There seems to be three main models of development right now:

  1. Develop in public – this is the model we most often see Google doing – things like Glass and the self-driving car are talked about for a long while before they become products we can actually use. ChromeOS also developed in a similar fashion. Companies that release beta versions of their products are doing this, too.
  2. Pre-announce then ship later – A model most associated with Microsoft, but often used by both software and hardware develops. It’s an odd hybrid, this one. You don’t give yourself enough time to take in customer feedback – but you take the hit of people stopping buying old products in the build up to the new. Apple has used it successfully on occasions – they pre-announced the iPhone, which allowed customers to hold off on a new phone until it arrived, without risk of cannibalising existing business. They didn’t have a phone business at that point. From them on, they’ve moved to…
  3. Announce and ship – the classic Apple model. “Here’s a cool new thing! And you can buy it…today!” No time for competitors to react, no time for customers to stop buying your old product.

It’s interesting that in the decade since the early bloggers started advocating radical transparency in the way companies dealt with their customers, that the world’s biggest company is actually thriving through being as obscure and secret as it can. CEO Tim Cook memorably said that they were “doubling down on secrecy” recently. Yet Google, on the other hand is thriving in a world where it talks about the majority (but not all) of what it’s doing in advance.

In any business communication, there’s a tension between communicating with your customers – a process which has grown ever easier in recent years, for good and ill – while not exposing too much to your competitors. As the Cluetrain Manifesto articulated so brilliantly back in the 90s, these markets are conversations – and good conversations are marked by understanding what information to share, and what to hold back. Radical transparency can very rapidly begin to look like over-sharing.

If anything, this is a warning to treat the proclamations of self-declared gurus with a heavy dose of caution. The world is a complex place, and growing more complex as it becomes an intertwined mass of networks. One size fits all solutions rarely work.

Figuring out what to communicate, when and where is going to become a major skill in the connected age. Too much sharing can leave you easy prey, too little can starve you of attention in this attention-poor age. Google is doing a clever thing with Glass, by steadily building interest and enthusiasm for a concept that would have been derided as a geek’s plaything if it had been unleashed cold on the world. Are you making decisions that smart?