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February 24, 2005 / jnolen

The Open Company Test

After writing that last post damning Apple's lack of transparency, I thought it might be a good idea to actually come of with a list of questions with which we might identify an open software company. I don't think it's necessary that a company meet all of these criteria, but the more the better.

  1. Open Sourcecode: Do you have access to the sourcecode? True open source is great, but simple access to the source code, even if it’s not under an open source license, is often enough.
  2. Open Data: Can you easily get your data into or out of the application, should the need arise?
  3. Open APIs: Can your other software interact with the application? The best applications provide different means of access: GUI, command-line, RSS, SOAP or REST, for example. These additional avenues of access enable you to build more complex and customized solutions using the product. Remember the philosophy of small pieces, loosely joined.
  4. Open Pricing: Can you easily find out from the company’s website how much the product costs, or do you have to talk to a sales-person? If it’s the latter, they’re hiding that information for a reason.
  5. Open Bugtracking: Can you access the real bug tracking system (not a neutered, customer-only bug ghetto)? Not all bugs (like security bugs) or information (like resource assignment) must necessarily be available, but the more the better.
  6. Open Feature Voting: Can you vote for your most critical issues and influence, to some degree, the allocation of development resources? There is obviously no guarantee, and there are dozens of factors that determine which bugs or features will be worked on in a given time period. But a user-visible voting system allows you to know that your voice is being heard and see how your request is balanced against other influences to effect the product.
  7. Open Communication / Open Community: Are you able to communicate with other users and with the developers of the product? There are many venues where this communication can occur: mailing lists, discussion forums, blogs (both employee author and customer authored) or wikis.

    But the critical threshold is the participation of company employees who are capable of understanding problems and offering solutions — not just human firewalls whose only job is to make sure that the riff-raff doesn’t disturb the developers.

  8. Open Documentation: Can users contribute to the product documentation? As I mentioned here, allowing users to help each other creates better, more accurate documentation. Knowledge hard-won through actual deployment and use should be shared as efficiently and directly as possible for the benefit of all.
  9. Open Customer Support: Can you see tech support issues filed by other customers? Not every customer issue is appropriate to share with the world, but openness should be the default. Learning from other user’s problems can help prevent your own.

There is, of course, a price for companies to pay for all of these behaviours. Radical openness will invite criticism. Customers will complain when their pet bugs aren’t being worked on. Or when their votes don’t translate into a new feature quickly enough. Opening up your resources to outside comment requires someone to review the user-added content. (Some sites, like Wikipedia can rely solely on the community to do this, but in this context it is, at least partly, the responsibility of the company.)

I strongly recommend that the next time you are evaluating a new software tool you look beyond just the software and think about the company itself behaves. (This is particularly relevant for software that could be considered a platform for further development: programming languages, operating systems, web browsers, communication tools, bug-trackers, &c.) Having a partnership with an open company will make a drastic difference in your experience actually using software. Look for a company who is serious about honest communication and is willing to commit to this kind of partnership.

I’m also interested in other people’s experiences: what other aspects of a software company would you like to see brought into the open? What other kinds of transparency would make you more likely to choose a vendor’s product over a closed one? What companies do you think succeed in being transparent?


  1. microISV / Feb 24 2005 3:29 pm

    Jonathan D. Nolen REALLY wants transparency

    Johnathan D. Nolen has come up with The Open Test for evaluating software companies. Now when he says open, he means open.

  2. Michael / Feb 24 2005 4:31 pm

    Nice post, however I don’t agree with all points.
    >Open Feature Voting
    Voting is not always a good idea, since users may be disapointed if some top features will not be in next release. And very often users really do not know what feature give the most benefit. Not all users are active to vote and results may be irrelevant.
    All the othere options seems to be valid for me.

  3. Mark Alldritt / Feb 24 2005 6:06 pm

    A cost not listed is that revealing bug data, user feature requests, customer support histories, etc. dilutes the competitive advantage some of this data provides.
    A lack of accurate understanding of user need represents a significant barrior to entry for potential competators. For me, an accurate understanding of market need is equal to any unique technologies embodied in my source code.
    I’ve been looking for ways to open my bug data and customer support database to my customers. However, my experience is that its often difficult to know what needs to be concealed and what can be safely revealed until long after the damage is done.
    I suppose if all companies revealed all this inforation, there would be a level playing field where we could all peer into each others collected market knowledge, but that’s not how it is.

  4. Jason / Feb 24 2005 6:15 pm

    Actually, voting can be tremendously useful. I should make it clear that I’m speaking specifically from the Marketing side of the equation. The ecommerce and software industries spend many millions of dollars on marketing intelligence tools (automated surveys, etc.). It seems counterintuitive to want to pay for that information over getting it for free from a feature-voting mechanism like Jonathan describes.
    Of course, it would be sheer folly to rely _solely_ on these votes for one’s product vision, but it otherwise appears to be a great, cheap, quantifiable source of customer feedback.

  5. JotBlog / Feb 25 2005 5:57 pm

    Is JotSpot an Open Company?

    Here at JotSpot we honestly want to be an ‘open’ company. Transparency, “do no evil”, real conversation with your market — these are a few of the hallmarks of an open company in 2005.
    Random bits of evidence suggest we’re trying. For examp…

  6. LudoBlog / Feb 26 2005 12:48 pm

    L’entreprise ouverte !

    Cela va plaire à RedRES. Jonathan Nolen (qui parle beaucoup de wikis), a listé des paramètres qui permettraient de mesure si une entreprise est réellement ouverte ! J’ai fais le test dans le blog d’XWiki et le résultat est: 100%…

  7. Ludovic Dubost / Feb 26 2005 12:56 pm

    XWiki’s take is at:
    I believe some additional criterias would be needed, like Open Sales Results, Open Financial Results, Open Capital, etc..
    You could go even further, but at some point it is not a company anymore !!!

  8. Olivier Travers / Feb 27 2005 11:48 am

    Open Companies More Important than Open Source

    I had missed the tempest in a teapot between Jot and SocialText, but whil catching up with these old news I found this mouthful from Jonathan D. Nolen: "What it comes down to for me as a customer, really, is…

  9. Jonathan Nolen / Mar 2 2005 4:51 am

    Mike, I see your points about competitive advantage of some user-contributed data. But I think the risks are relatively small and the rewards relatively great. I plan to deal with this a length in a later post. Thanks for the feedback.

  10. tommy trouble / Mar 5 2005 5:45 pm

    Jonathan is the smartest man on the planet. I’m sending all of my high-tech business to him. I also dig his tastes. ‘Interview with a vampire’ was “brilliant”. If you have any questions, please buy a Cajun SS record or Catholic Boys album and listen to it at a high volume, and truly “hear” the music.
    Peace, love, and happiness.

  11. Jonathan Nolen / Mar 5 2005 6:14 pm

    Thanks, Tom. You’re a peach.

  12. Wikicities / Mar 17 2005 9:00 pm

    Wikia passes the open company test

    Jonathan Nolen proposed an open company test:
    “I don’t just want open source code. I want a partnership with an open company. You also have to provide channels of communication — and participate in them. And you have to be honest about your p…

  13. Gino Tocchetti / Apr 21 2005 6:35 am

    Great challange! I translated it in italian

  14. LudoBlog / Jul 24 2005 5:08 pm

    Un panel sur le Web Ouvert et le Web Fermé: tout le monde est ouvert

    Ce panel animé par Marc Canter, cofondateur de Macromedia comporte du beau monde: * Mark Fletcher, vice president & general manager, Bloglines at Ask Jeeves * Joe Kraus, Cofounder and CEO, JotSpot * Ross Mayfield, CEO, Social Text * Toni…

  15. LudoBlog / Jul 25 2005 7:40 pm

    A panel on Open Web or Closed Web: everybody’s open but how open ?

    This panel animated by Marc Canter, co-founder of Macromedia has some nice folks in it: * Mark Fletcher, vice president & general manager, Bloglines at Ask Jeeves * Joe Kraus, Cofounder and CEO, JotSpot * Ross Mayfield, CEO, Social Text…

  16. Genesis of a Business Plan / Jun 26 2006 1:35 pm

    What is an Open Business? Consider the Open Value

    In two recent posts on, (What is an Open Business and What is an Open Business – Part II), a number of thought-provoking ideas have been voiced with regard to the conditions that shape openness in business. In a similar vain, J. Nolen…

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