Is Transparency the Killer Virtue?

The ace in Linux' hole may go beyond a free and open nature to something more businesses will demand from everything they depend on: transparency.

Last Friday I had lunch with my friend, Jim Sterne, one of those rare marketing guys who deals in the concrete rather than the abstract. Jim is about as BS-free a marketing guy as you can find. Among other things, he has written a pile of practical books that pull no punches about what doesn't work, while providing plenty of practical wisdom about what does.

We spent much of the meal cowondering about why so many CEOs talk about "accountability" and say they value hard facts, yet show limited interest in what their companies actually do on the Net. Yes, it's nice they finally recognize that having a web site is a good thing, like having a lobby and adequate visitor parking. But beyond that, they're worse than clueless--they're contented with that state.

In his new book , Web Metrics: Proven Methods for Measuring Web Site Success, Jim makes the case for accountability, measurement, ROI, best practices, economies of scale and so on. He also gives practical advice not only for delivering those values but for convincing the upper parts of the org chart there's a need for them-- kind of like the infantry telling the brass there's a war going on.

Earlier that day I spoke on the phone with Marc Canter, another industry veteran. Marc's a talented guy: too polyhedral a peg to fit in a hole of any shape. You might remember him as the founder of Macromind, now Macromedia. The first time I saw Marc, sometime back in 80s, he was singing beautifully. He was also busy creating authoring tools that would relieve both he and his customers of the need to program machine code. The result, in addition to Macromind Director and other products, was a bunch of ideas about "multimedia" that departed sadly from his founding influence.

We talked about all kinds of stuff, but two things stand out in my notes. One is that Marc said he likes hiring people over 40 because their high-mileage wisdom and long-term perspectives are necessary for a company's durable success. The other was that we both (as post-40 guys) saw three famous crashes from three consecutive decades as part of the same trend toward full corporate awakening.

The first crash was the savings and loan crash in the mid-80s. The second was the dot-com crash at the end of the 90s. And the third is the current meltdown of companies like Enron and WorldCom, whose departed value was largely derived from accounting opacities.

Several weeks ago I had lunch in London with another marketing guy, Chris Macrae, son of the economist Norman Macrae and another tireless evangelist of good marketing sense. A lot of what Chris says may be wordy and vague, but I love that the guy thinks out loud about stuff that matters. Lately he has been wrestling publicly with the issue of transparency.

As it happens I've been thinking lately that the real virtue of Linux and other forms of infrastructural software--as well as all the protocols that together make up the Net (which I talk about in the latest SuitWatch newsletter)--is not only that it's open and free, but that it's transparent. It is see-thru infrastructure. In fact, what makes it infrastructural is the fact that you can see through it. You can trust it because it has no secrets. The source of its integrity may not be obvious to everybody, but it's easy to find, to examine and even to improve.

This is Linux' appeal not only to budget-minded companies that recognize the hidden costs of opaque dependencies, but to whole governments that don't want to depend on anything that isn't entirely knowable. In this story about Linux in China from earlier this year, Matei Mihalca, head of Internet research at Merrill Lynch Asia Pacific, said "China wants to control its destiny in terms of the software platform that is used in the country", and he added that "there is full transparency in terms of the underlying code" with Linux.

Credit where due: Bill Gates was right to make a big deal about "trustworthy computing". And maybe Microsoft is beginning to understand that some of Linux's appeal is its transparently trustworthy nature. (And let's also give them points for not trying to squash Ximian's Mono project and for planning a booth at LinuxWorld Expo.)

In his memo (link above), Bill says, "Trustworthy Computing is computing that is as available, reliable and secure as electricity, water services and telephony." We should note that all those services are pure infrastructure whose workings are mostly transparent. Yet for all its popularity, Windows lacks that same transparency, which makes it inherently less infrastructural. It's an interesting issue. Opacity may be a virtue of commercial software and drive its value, but ultimately it disqualifies that software as deep infrastructure. The questions for software companies everywhere will increasingly be: What transparent goods do we ubiquitize (or help ubiquitize) as foundational infrastructure? What opaque stuff can we sell as products that run on that infrastructure? For companies accustomed to controlling whole markets by creating dependencies on opaque code, that's a tough choice, but it's one that must be made.

By contrast, Apple has moved ahead of the curve by taking advantage of foundational transparencies everywhere it can find them: BSD (borrowed for Darwin, the open-source form of UNIX on which OS X is built), 802.11b, Jabber, ZeroConf, FireWire and everything else it can either create and share or borrow to help ubiquitize. Whatever else one might say about the company, it's clear they grok the transparency issue in a strategic way.

So I'm beginning to think that transparency is the issue to bet on. Customers have always wanted it. Employees have always been uncomfortable (or at least inconvenienced) by the opacity imperative, as well as the whole cult of secrecy that accounts for countless corporate strategies. But most significantly, stockholders are finally--thanks to Enron and WorldCom--fed up with opaque accounting practices.

How long will it take before they get equally as fed up with opaque infrastructural software?

(I'll look for your answers in the comments section below. But also feel free to carry the conversation over to the Stealthy Business Linux Forum. I'll be doing the same.)

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.



Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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Anonymous's picture

Good article. But Apple? Transparent? Hardly.

They took BSD and built on top of it a proprietary OS (and yes, it is proprietary). Their plans are secret, and are only ever revealed at the next "expo" - Jobs loves going tada. Amusing? Yes. Transparent? No.

Anybody who dares even post speculation about what their future plans may be are harassed and persecuted for being a rumour site. They sue anybody who tries to make something that looks like their own platform (see the Mozilla debacle). They even persecuted KDE for having a trash can at one point - now they take its JavaScript engine.

Apple is about the most opaque company I have ever seen. They don't "grok" transparency, they use it.

Re: Is Transparency the Killer Virtue?

Anonymous's picture

My response is perhaps off topic for the philosophical style of discussion you want to instigate, but anyway.

I don't think that transparent quality of open source means much for enterprise use.

From what I have seen, in enterprises, operating system is looked on as a commodity. What does matter and what is not a commodity are applications, application frameworks, their support for integration with legacy environment and so on. Then comes performance and availability requirements and only when you know answer to these issues, you have a look on underlying infrastructure such as operating systems and web servers to see what is available.

Benefits that infrastructure (as opposed to applications) brings are hard to measure in monetary terms. In contrast it is relatively easy to calculate ROI for applications and thus they generally play bigger role in the software selection process.

As ESR demonstrated in The Magic Cauldron, it does not make economical sense to open-source non-commodity software (such as applications) and therefore it is likely that transparency of software will not matter much to business.

Sorry to be pragmaticaly cynical.

Re: Is Transparency the Killer Virtue?

Terry's picture

Hi Doc!

Good article as usual.

I was actually responding to your 7/11 Suitwatch newsletter in which you stated -

Yesterday I put up a new discussion at the Linux for Suits forum,

titled "Should we be talking more about transparency?":


Since that link didn't take me anywhere, I checked the forums... Specifically, The new infrastructure business and The new construction business software is becoming forums where I thought this discussion belonged or would fit in well. Nope, not there either.

Anyway, in the newsletter, you said -

I've thought often about what he said, almost always in terms of

"open" and "closed". But what about "transparent" and "opaque"? Yes,

concrete building materials are hardly transparent in a literal sense,

but builders need to be extremely clear about what they're working

with. If it's foundational stuff--true infrastructure, not a

"platform" that sits on other infrastructure--the builder wants to

know, or to be in a position to find out, exactly what's in there.

Lives, or at least livelihoods, depend on it.

I have to agree with this entirely. Can you imagine the foundation subcontractor on a hi-rise project coming in and telling the architects and engineers that they can't watch them do their work and they can never know what ratio of water to concrete they've used or how much if any rebar? And on top of that, they make them sign an agreement stating that they're not allowed to reverse engineer or anylize the materials used? And that their not responsible in anyway for the reliability of the foundation and can't be sued in the event that the foundation fails to perform its functions as advertised?

Now imagine that they advertise that this is a much safer way of doing business because the bad guys don't know where the vulnerabilities lie if they try to attack!

The funny thing is, our industry has been moving slowly towards this "transparent infrastructure" without most people even seeing it! Think about DNS, and bind, and tcp/ip. Thats infrastructure, no? I see the process alot like evolution and natural selection. Think of things like Banyon Vines. Some things fit well in a niche. They don't need to evolve because they do what they need to do "good enough". At least for a span of time. A short time ago, it wasn't very important for the marketing department to be able to access the inventory departments database. Now, the dinosaurs that still live in the niches are slowly dying there because their niches are disappearing and they can't evolve. They have become opaqe and the next rung on their evolutionary ladder is obsolete (read extinct).

oh well, just my two cents.



Re: Is Transparency the Killer Virtue?

Anonymous's picture

There's a missing decade - the 70's. For those of us post-50 remember the economic disaster, stagflation. Johnson and Nixon tried to fight the war in Vietnam and also get re-elected. The result was the closest thing to depression since the 30's and stunning inflation when the economy "recovered". I'm not sure how this relates to corporate accountability, but both Johnson and Nixon had credibility gap problems - i.e. Nixon's 1968 pre-election promise that he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam war.

Re: Is Transparency the Killer Virtue?

Anonymous's picture

Funny that the article starts with a "no BS marketing guy". The open source community has the most BS and non-transparent marketing ever. Sit through a RedHat embedded seminor and an hour later, you will find out that they are really trying to sell you ecos.

With Microsoft, at least they will tell you right away that you are going to be screwed this way and that way.

Re: Is Transparency the Killer Virtue?

Anonymous's picture

Sorry to have to inform you, Red Hat is not the spokesman for open source software. Their product is really service around open sourced software and if you think they are not going to try to sell you something then you are mistaken.

At least when you do purchase, what you get is transparent. At least in the context of this article.

recap: Red Hat is not the embodiment of open-source software. Microsoft is the embodiment of closed-source software, illegally at that. So your comparison is flawed.


Re: Grok is good, having a clue is better

jeff's picture

Doc's article is once again dead on target. Grok is a fine word to use in the descriptive process. But, in terms of understandng the thesis, although it is good to have metrics to measure performance, having a clue at specification of the function of a web site is probably more important.

Doc is too humble to toot his own horn, so I will just say, before you worry about merics, read "The Cluetrain Manifesto"

Re: Is Transparency the Killer Virtue?

Anonymous's picture

Transparency IS more important than price

(and tightly linked to freedom). And your

article is great.

A few unworthy comments.

1. grok is not a word. (Yes, I've read Heinlein,

but your article is ALMOST suitable for

presentation to CEOs; grok isn't suitable.)

You might try grasp. (Even then, "grasp the

transparency issue in a big way" will benefit

from editing.)

2. Comparison with electrical utilities is a good one.

How many companies would sign on with an

electric company who maintained a private

definition of "volts"?

3. Inferring trustworthiness from transparency is

right on. Compare:

Inspectable source ... trust the code,

sleep at night

Bill Gates ... "trust ME"

Keep it up!

Bill Sconce


In Spec, Inc.

Re: Is Transparency the Killer Virtue?

Doc's picture


Agreed with all but "grok." If I had been writing exclusively for suited CEOs, I might not have used it; but I think everybody around here groks the meaning pretty well. :-)

Re: Is Transparency the Killer Virtue?

Anonymous's picture

Actually, grok is a word, at least it is if you consider valid words as being words that are in the dictionary. It's even in the oxford english dictionary!

just my two cents worth. :)