Tim Bray had this to say about bridge blogs:
The part of my function where I relay issues and concerns and discoveries from the developer community into Sun is much more important than the part where I talk to the world.
I prefer to deal with companies that respect me enough as a customer to listen to me, and I think that bridge blogs can be a huge part of that effort. Microsoft started looking a lot less like an evil empire when Microsoft employees started blogging. Not only did they put a human face on the company, but they made it clear that you could communicate with this huge company at a personal level. Ideas, complaints, and comments from customers seemed to be making it inside the corporate firewall.
Apple is a counter-example for the benefits of building bridges to customers. All summer people have been complaining about some visual issues with the dock in Leopard. The details of the issue aren’t particularly interesting unless you’re an interface designer, so suffice it to say that the issue was somewhat esoteric but Apple was clearly wrong. (Here’s a post by Craig Hockenberry from July that explains the issue, and here’s Paul Kafasis explaining why the problem is even worse if you keep the dock on the side.) For the past few months people have been wringing their hands about the issue, and John Gruber even offered a good solution to the dock on the side issue earlier this month.
Even though people were putting a lot of work into documenting the issue and offering solutions, Apple remained silent. As it turns out, Apple has fixed the dock on the side problem in the most recent build of Leopard, but there was never any interaction with the community in the meantime. Apple makes great products that are fun to use, but it has this persistent rift with its most passionate users because it is almost completely closed to external communication. Clearly building those bridges is not really Apple’s style, but I think that must change over time. The fact that Steve Jobs has issued several “letters to customers” this year shows that they’re starting to not only listen to customers, but respond to them.
Open source is probably the original impetus for all of the bridge building that’s going on these days. Open source software is a community effort and full transparency is the default operating mode for most projects. Once people became accustomed to having the opportunity to communicate with the people who were writing their software, they started demanding it from commercial software companies as well.
I guess that’s a long way of saying that I agree with Tim. Not only does listening to customers show them that you care, but it also makes a company better. There are a lot of smart people out there, and companies are foolish to ignore them.