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January 21, 2005 / jnolen

Stand Down: Wiki-wars rethought; Plus, open source, open companies

I realize I'm a couple days late putting together my thoughts on the whole Wiki-wars dust-up between SocialText and JotSpot, but here goes.

First, Matt Marshall's original article was really substandard: pure sensationalism. I've enjoyed reading his blog, but the Merc news article is trying to invent a controversy where there is none. Honestly, can you believe that they wasted column inches on the fact that company A lost one customer to company B?

Doc Searls has some good insight on this whole fiasco, especially the old journalistic habits that default to this kind of coverage. I particularly liked his idea that “the war metaphor uses OR logic rather than the AND logic that actually makes markets grow.” Growing the market is good for everyone, even journalists.

Second, let’s examine the one customer who switched products. SocialText was proud to claim “Disney” as one of their corporate sales. And JotSpot was no doubt proud to have snatched them away. But look a little closer, and we find out it was actually the “cable network engineering department” at Disney. The original claim starts to seem more than a little disingenuous. To say you have a Fortune 500 company as a customer (with the revenue that implies) while eliding the fact that only one tiny department is actually using your product seems deliberately misleading. (I know, every enterprise software company on the planet exaggerates their customer lists in exactly this manner. But it’s still depressing.)

Third, this radically misrepresents the true market potential of wikis. Both of these companies are just starting to roll. SocialText has roughly 75 customers. JotSpot only has one. Atlassian (who didn’t even get mentioned in the original article) has about 300. But the market is so much larger than these numbers suggest.

Om Malik thinks that wikis are a “micro-niche” application. Frankly, he couldn’t be more wrong. There’s an educational hurdle to overcome and some easy-of-use issues to conquer, but when someone solves those problems (and they will) it’s hard to imagine an enterprise customer who couldn’t profit from a wiki. The potential market, as well as the potential customer benefit, is enormous.

Ross Mayfield says he wants, “the 400 million business users of email who reject the complexity of enterprise systems and simply want the benefits of group productivity solutions. One day there will be a wiki server next to every Exchange server and people will discover the power of working openly and socially.”

I’ve watched this play out at my company, and the wiki largely delivers what everyone promised “the company intranet” would provide in the mid-nineties. Let’s all pause for a moment as we all remember how much money was thrown after that sales pitch. And internal-collaboration is only half of the value. As I outlined here, using wikis to build relationships with your customers is equally compelling.

Fourth, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Graham Spencer both make some good points about the nature of open source. In this context, especially, open data is just as important as open sourcecode. Though access to sourcecode is definitely one of the criteria I look for, true open source (in the sense that I can redistribute it as I see fit) isn’t nearly important here.

In this sense, Atlassian is just as open as I need them to be. There are tons of ways to interact with their applications: you can easily get data in or out; you get the sourcecode when you buy a license; you can extend or enhance the product if you need; you get access to their real bug-tracker; you can read and participate in their documentation wiki; and you are able to communicate directly with their devs over multiple channels. And best of all, this openness is fostering a thriving, open-source-style community around their products. Atlassian’s devs and their customers are collaborating on extenstions, priorities, new feature design and support. It’s brilliant. Despite the fact that they don’t meet the OSI definition of open source, Atlassian is far more open than either JotSpot or SocialText seem to be at this stage.

What it comes down to for me as a customer, really, is this: I don’t just want open source code. I want a partnership with an open company. Open source code and open data are just a minimum bar. You also have to provide channels of communication — and participate in them. And you have to be honest about your product: both its problems and its future directions. In the end, the open relationship with your customers will prove far more valuable (as well as more remunerative) than open source code alone.

4 Comments

  1. Michael / Jan 22 2005 4:17 am

    Don’t call my department tiny.
    We’ve got feelings too…

  2. Jonathan Nolen / Jan 22 2005 8:59 am

    My apologies. I admit I was just guessing at size. How big is the department, anyway?

  3. JotBlog / Jan 26 2005 4:20 pm

    Old school

    One thing in Ross’s post merited a comment here: he says that we’re “old school” for thinking that we can convince developers to build on our closed-source platform.
    I’d like to suggest instead that it’s “old school” to focus exclusively on …

  4. LudoBlog / Mar 17 2005 7:12 am

    Gunfight at Wiki Coral !

    Wikis seem to be a good subject for blog fights. After a while ago a nice fight between SocialText and Jot new we have another one between Steven and Mike (I’ve linked pages from Jonathan Nolen, as his blogs seems…

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