Will giving customers a little inside information keep them loyal or let them take advantage of you? The immediacy and interaction of blogs have caught the imagination of employees who want to talk about their work with peers, customers and anyone who's interested.
Some companies have embraced the idea: research directors and analysts at Jupiter and Gartner publish their thoughts in official blogs. Others are more suspicious, and last week Borland blogger Danny Thorpe ruffled feathers internally by talking about future features and pinning a version number on the product they might be in. So who is saying what?
Ask Microsoft about the specifics of future versions of Office or Windows and you tend to get the reply that the company doesn't discuss unannounced products -- or that until a product is finished, it's not possible to say what's in it. But you can get a good idea of what's happening with the technical underpinnings of Longhorn, the next version of Windows, and developer tools such as Visual C++, by reading developers' blogs.
There are around 400 Microsoft employees blogging. Some are informal, personal journals where you might read about conference speeches and interesting Web pages, just like any other blog. Most are full of technical information about how to work with the latest developer tools, discussions about the architecture of Longhorn, or explanations of how the features in Word and OneNote are developed.
The Channel 9 Web site combines blogs from five Microsoft employees who want to give developers "a way to listen in to the cockpit at Microsoft."
Several senior developers at Macromedia, including the chief software architect, Kevin Lynch, have blogs covering the products they work on. Ray Ozzie, chief executive of Groove Networks and the man behind Lotus Notes, debates his software products and technology developments with customers and critics alike. Software pioneers Dan Bricklin (VisiCalc) and Mitch Kapor (Lotus 1-2-3) have blogs that cover their current projects.
Read the right blogs and you can get the unofficial or semi-official inside track. For example, a post from prolific Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble mentioned Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 (and complained that the real name was far less interesting than the codename Lone Star). That version of Tablet PC is tied to Service Pack 2 and the 2005 means it will come out in Microsoft's 2005 financial year, which starts in July. A few days later came the official announcement that the service pack wouldn't be out for June as planned but "in the third quarter" -- July at the earliest.
In general, Microsoft's attitude is relaxed and employees police their own blogs. As recent convert Chris Pratley, a group program manager, puts it in his blog: "We have small teams of dedicated people who don't need rules ... to make them perform."
Scoble proposed a "corporate weblog manifesto" last year, with 21 tips for making a blog worthwhile (three are about being open with information, and most are common sense). He's working with the PR, legal and corporate teams at Microsoft to rewrite it as "Blogging Best Practices," to help other employees.
But the Channel 9 team points out that some things won't be discussed: "This has nothing to do with censorship, but with working within the reality of the system that exists in our world today. You will not change anything by taking on legal or financial issues, you will only shock the system, spook the passengers and create a negative situation."
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