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Notes on announcing an Open Source product

When you announce a new product you want your company to be the center of attention. All the time and resources invested in developing it must translate into exposure that you can control, and ultimately convert into business. We Open Sourceres face unique challenges in predicting and shaping public perception about our software. Simply put, we must own our own news.

In the run-up to my announcement of Collabora CloudSuite, the LibreOffice-based Google Docs competitor, the clock was ticking to announce first, and announce loudest, news over which I had little control.

The race to announce

As Jeremy Irons says: “to make a living in this business, you must be first, be smarter, or cheat.” As he concludes in the movie Margin Call, being first is the best out of three. When operating in the open, announcing your work first is critical to set the backdrop, framing, and focus of the news, and to capture all available traffic for yourself (and your lead forms).

Yet public Git repositorious can be accessed by anyone; source code can be built, unstable code tested, and unfair assessments made. Collabora develops LibreOffice in communitiry repositories — in January, journalists knew about LibreOffice for Android before I had announced it. The more astute among them had followed the commits, and responded to my release announcement with “what’s new about that?”.

Pre-emptive statements can be very effective at fertilising the ground of your future work: announcing that work has begun, or your direction has been set, can help establish yourself as the authoritative source for what comes next. Announcing earlier than you’d like to is better than re-announcing yesterday’s news. However this cannot protect you from another threat: your own engineers stealing the limelight. 

We want our engineers to be community leaders, well-known contributors and constant communicators. The coder who routinely showcases their own work in blogs, videos and social media is a powerful asset indeed.

But the affect can be powerfully antagonistic when uncoordinated with a new product announcement. Finding an impromptu preview of a hot unannounced feature in my G+ timeline more than once elicited a “wow” followed by “oh shit”, followed by rapid-fire emails to the esteemed hacker responsible. Keeping engineers aligned with announcement timelines is a critical ongoing task to encourage their valuable engagement without compromising wider goals.

Working in the open entails giving up control that proprietary software companies enjoy. It’s nigh on impossible to keep big secrets among a large developer community. But by working harder, planning better, and managing relationships more closely than closed source rivals, Open Source product announcements can impact the right people at the right time.

So, what do you think ?