Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Review of "Wikinomics"

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything
by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams (Portfolio Hardcover, 2006)

This book intends to show how new collaborative technologies are changing the way things work in business. It stresses the point that people and corporations need to adapt or be left behind. It speaks about things like the Open Source movement and how Web 2.0 requires some new perspectives on business and success. It contrasts archaic ways of doing business with the new "open" ways that are powering current developments in the market. It covers many case studies about businesses that have shown remarkable ability to adopt and embrace this new collaboration.

I found myself part way through this book with very negative feelings about it. It all seemed rather hype-driven to me. The authors talk very optimistically about the new "Golden Era" of Wikinomics and collaboration. It is loaded with platitudes and strange usage of words such as "huckstering", "ecosystems", "consultantese", "successism", etc. It seemed to be a large pile of "purple prose". I also found some technically inaccurate statements, such as the part about XML and tagging. There is also some questionable usage of the term "open source", even to the point where the book at one point states that Microsoft is adopting open source. I don't remember the exact words, but that is basically what they implied. That is not true. Microsoft is, in reality, trying to appear more transparent about what they are doing and are releasing some source code. From what I understand, the Windows source code has always been available to whoever is willing to sign a draconian contractual agreement. But that is not open source. Open source involves releasing source code on some very specific terms, which mere distribution of sources doesn't necessarily satisfy. Even Microsoft marketing moguls know enough to distinguish between this and "open source". They "share" source, but don't consider it "open". While generally the author's portrayal of the open source movement is pretty good, at a few critical points the authors show misunderstandings about what "open source" actually is.

Now that I've finished the book, I must say that those criticisms still apply. However, my perspective on the book has evened out a bit. I am now more appreciative of what the authors have produced. I do really think it is a valuable work for those who want to find out why applying old business techniques to the Internet will not work. What is needed are new strategies to accomidate changes that have been in the works for many years now. One can not depend on secrecy, "locking things down", and tying in the customer in order to succeed in today's environment. Competition and the necessity of rapid development requires that many minds, inside and outside of particular firms, need to collaborate to accomplish things that one firm's employees could not. By fostering openness and community innovation, large companies can leverage this community in ways that their own staff never could and they can focus on other areas which are more important to their core business. This applies to various extents to both sheer production and knowledge-based markets such as scientific research. As the open source movement has proven, the values of openness and sharing have really pervaded the current culture. People want to be able to "tweak" and "mix" the things they use. In order to succeed, businesses must start to actively seek out opportunities to collaborate, to contribute to the community and also reap the benefits of community contribution. If the only way a business can succeed is by what it hides from its customers and how it restricts its customers, it is doomed to failure. Companies need to embrace openness and find ways they can leverage these changes to accomidate win-win situations. These are just a few of the points that the authors make very forcefully.

There is much that is valuable in this book for technologists and business people. As I've mentioned, there are some annoying aspects about this book, but now seeing the book as a whole I conclude that the good outweighs the bad. I find it plausible to assume that some of the "errors" may have been moreso miscommunications than outright errors and are perhaps not very serious blunders in light of the entire scope of the book. This is a book worth getting if you have a stake in developing, marketing, or even using technology. The authors wisely broaden their presentation of the new "Wikinomics" to include all sorts of disciplines and industries. I'd particularly recommend this book to decision makers in companies that are struggling with the old mindset of "locking things down in order to stay competitive".

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