Secrecy is over-rated

Just because Steve Jobs and Apple can go stealth, doesn't mean it works for most technology companies. Apple is the rare exception of a company that can roll-out a new product like the iPad in front of a global audience drooling with anticipation after keeping the device under wraps for months, although even Apple had difficulty containing leaks.

Time was, this was standard operating procedure in the technology market. New products were developed in secrecy, and new features were closely guarded behind non-disclosure agreements and embargoes until the grand unveiling. I participated in a few of these first-hand with Lotus 1-2-3 Release 4, Notes 3 and eSuite. (Drop me a note if you remember any of these.)

Things change

Most technology companies, though, have abandoned the secrecy around new products, and for good reason.

For one, all the cloak & dagger didn't really protect features from being copied and leap-frogged by competitors. Lotus 1-2-3 brought a long list of innovative features to spreadsheets... and most of them fairly quickly ended up in Microsoft Excel.

This kind of feature leap-frogging is especially true for software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions, where new enhancements are often brought out quarterly. At that pace, a competitor may be able to knock off any particular innovation in fairly short order. Companies can certainly innovate to get ahead of competitors, but it requires constant innovation to stay ahead. One unique "killer" feature, by itself, isn't likely to stay unique for long.

Secrecy impedes customer input

One of the great advantages of SaaS solutions is the closer connection of providers to users. Because the provider is hosting the solution, it should better understand what users are doing with it and how it can be improved.

To take advantage of this closer connection and respond quickly and appropriately to customer needs requires an open channel of communication. It's difficult to have productive discussions about new features and functions with your user community, while covering the whole conversation under a cone of silence. Yes, it's possible to engage with a select few customers and carefully guard that input, but that eliminates one of key advantages of SaaS solutions over on-premise applications.

Secrecy does not engender trust

Customers of SaaS solutions are not buying a product; they are buying a promise. They are trusting the provider to reliably deliver a stream of functionality and enhancements over the life of the subscription.

To win the trust of prospective customers, SaaS providers are usually better off showing those prospects how they intend to enhance the service going forward. They should be open with enhancements due to be delivered in the short term. (Google makes these new services available as "betas.") For those enhancements scheduled to be delivered further in the future, providers should at least share their general direction. Showing prospects your track record of delivering on your promises will also help win their confidence.

Keeping secrets was essential in the struggle between KAOS and CONTROL, but for the SaaS market... not so much.