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Secrecy, tech launches and the legacy of the Osborne effect

As the pace of change in technology continues to accelerate, the most valuable information companies have are their roadmaps.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

We all know of the concept of the Osborne effect — the perils of talking about the next, new and improved version of a device while the original model is still on the shelves and in warehouses.

And we've seen plenty of examples of Osborning in action since the 1980s original — in and outside of the tech world. With a company's survival often at stake, it's an error that needs to be avoided — and trap into which businesses the world over are desperately trying to avoid falling, often as a result over-reacting and keeping the future secret.

Too much secrecy is an over-reaction to the Osborne effect and a toxic legacy that is affecting the way technology companies communicate with their customers, their partners, and their developers — especially at this point of significant change in the industry, and when change gets faster and faster.

For me this is a reaction that drives how Google, Apple and Microsoft are all operating, why they're addicted to secrecy, and why when they do deliver information about future plans it's often incomplete and late. They're all running a variant of the Red Queen's Race, all chasing the dragon's pearl of future markets, all while avoiding abandoning along millions, if not billions, of existing customers. It's not good, and it's only going to get worse.

Consider Microsoft: often thought to be behind the curve, I actually see it as overcompensating for the Osborne effect.

As anyone who tracks Redmond will tell you there's one very interesting thing about Microsoft: it's very good at knowing where it needs to go, at spotting where the industry is going, and at building the tools and services it needs to get there. It's just not so good at telling people the steps it's taking to get there.

To be honest, there's a very good reason why it's difficult for a company to tell its customers that they're purchasing an intermediate step, and that the technologies they're investing in aren't going to be supported for, oh, say, as long as Windows XP.

When you have billions of customers, telling them that the way they have done things for the last decade is going to go away is going to be a very complex task, even if you've been hinting at that road ahead for much of the last five years.

But still you can't educate those users in advance, you can't even tell developers everything you're going to do, when you know that there's a significant change on the horizon.

Apple had time in hand when it announced the iPhone. It was a new product, in a new market. So it was able to spend the time educating users in its UI, and in its interaction modes before the first device hit the shelves.

The same was true of the iPad, again a new device, a new way of working, and a long lead in before the actual launch.

Later devices in those families had much shorter lead times (and the advantage of Apple owning its supply chain). We'll see much the same with Google's Glass, as it uses a high profile Explorer program to tease out details, developing a user centric platform in plain sight. Microsoft didn't have that option when it launched Windows 8 at the first Build conference in Anaheim, though it did when it unveiled the Surface tablets.

Once you start filtering company communications through a fear of the Osborne effect, things start to make a lot more sense. We're at a point where what used to be two- or three-year product lifecycles are now a year or six months, and where it's possible for a fast mover to quickly replicate the key design features of a new app or service. In this world loose lips do more than sink ships, they destroy the livelihoods of thousands and wipe out millions, if not billions, of dollars in investors' funds.

But if things going to change, so that IT teams can plan for consumerisation, and so that developers are able to deliver new apps when you hardware and OSes arrive, then we need to find ways of opening up company secrets, while keeping consumers still buying. It's sadly not going to be an open world, unless consumer behaviours change dramatically, so it's likely to be one of trusted partners getting early access, coupled with legal penalties for broken embargoes.

Someday, not too far in the future, someone is going to write a business book on this dark age of technology. It's going to make fascinating reading.

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