It’s been a while since I did a blog posting.  The day job’s got to come first, and I’ve been extremely busy.  But as the weeks have turned into months, and as blog comments have started to say things like “What happened to MikeCal?” it’s clear that I need to try to squeeze some writing in. 

It seems that people don’t fully understand the fundamental difference between how we at Microsoft develop products compared to how some of our very famous competitors do.  The main difference comes from deciding whether to work with partners or whether to “go it alone.”  There are obvious benefits to “going it alone” and there are obvious difficulties with having partners.  But there are also benefits to partners and difficulties to going it alone.  These things might not be as obvious to people outside the industry, so I’ll try to explain the pros and cons of both sides.

What’s a “Partner,” anyway?

We need to make a distinction between “partners” and “vendors.”   A vendor is someone you buy something from.   Everyone in the phone industry works with vendors.   No one drills their own oil so that they can refine it into their own plastics, etc.  Most people buy the majority of their phone’s components, the CPU, the RAM, the battery, the screen, etc. from vendors.  There are usually multiple competing vendors that sell similar items, so you can often switch vendors without too much difficulty.

A partner, on the other hand, is someone you share responsibility with.   You may or may not buy something from the partner, but the relationship tends to be more complex than with vendors.  Think of the differences between your coworkers and the store down the street.  The store is a vendor.  Your coworkers (hopefully) are partners.  Partners tend to be on somewhat even footing with you.  You can’t really order them about, the way you can a vendor.   And you usually share the making of some decisions with them. 

It’s good to be King

The main advantage to “going it alone” (not having partners) is that you get to make all the important decisions yourself.  This usually results in a very consistent product and, if quality is a goal, can result in a high quality one too.  While consistency and quality are their own rewards, consumers also like knowing who to blame when things go wrong.   People rightfully get frustrated when one company says, “That’s the other guy’s problem.”  This doesn’t happen if there is no “other guy.”

Variety: The Spice Of Life

Where going it alone brings consistency, the main benefit to partners is variety.  Windows mobile has around 40 OEMs making phones.  That allows us to bring a huge variety of devices to customers.  We have flip phones, candy bar phones, QWERTY keyboard phones, phones with sliders, phones that look like small laptops, phones with touch screens, phones for the vision impaired, phones that cost $600.  Phones that cost $300.  Phones that cost $150.  Phones that are free with a contract.  Phones for the European market.  Phones for the United States.  Phones for China.  Phones for Africa.  Phones for South America.  Etc.

A “go it alone” company will eventually have some variety.  They may have two or three phones.  If they’re enormous they might have ten to twenty.  But forty companies will always make a wider variety of things than one will. 

Partners also allow variety in what the phone can do.  For instance, some of our phones have video teleconferencing.  That’s a feature provided by a partner, not us.  You can lose some consistency when different people develop different parts of the OS.  For instance, the UI for video teleconferencing doesn’t look quite the same as the rest of the phone’s UI.  But, given the choice between an inconsistent UI with video teleconferencing and no teleconferencing at all, many users will choose to have the feature.  And, here’s the variety thing again, if you’d rather no teleconferencing than teleconferencing with an inconsistent UI, we have phones with no teleconferencing too.

It’s also lonely being King

The downside to going it alone is that you have to do everything yourself.  You can say things like, “What we do, we do better,” but that only plays with the people who happen to want the few models of phones you create.  To some people, having a slider phone is more important than any amount of consistent UI.  For other people, having the UI be in their native language is more important than a perfectly consistent one in a language they don’t speak.  People are different, and different people want different things.

And some spices are bad

One of the downsides to variety is that you can also get variety in quality.  We’ve had a number of rock solid devices that have worked wonderfully.   We’ve had some real duds (names withheld to protect the guilty).   And we’ve had a range of devices in between.  Even when we’ve had more great devices than a “go it alone” company has, the bad devices will always paint us in a worse light. 

Another of the downsides is that different partners don’t always have the same priorities.  One might think quality is most important while the other thinks that price is.  One might value a consistent interface while the other has customers who find a particular feature to be a much bigger deal.  When there are multiple partners involved, it usually shows.

And, when different people are responsible for different parts of a phone, you don’t know where to go when something doesn’t work.  I know firsthand how frustrated you folks get when we say, “We didn’t write that code, so we can’t fix it.” 

Walking down the middle of the street

Going it alone or going with partners are both valid approaches to the problem of shipping products.  But they’re separate solutions.  You might be tempted to suggest we do a combination of the two strategies.   I’ve seen people say, “Why can’t you be more like them?” to which I reply, “But you’re using a Russian language flip phone, and they don’t have anything like that.”  Their reply is usually, “Yeah, do everything you’re currently doing, but also be more like them.”  Trouble is, we’re able to do the things we do because we have partners.   If we didn’t have partners, we’d lose the variety that people want.  Others have suggested that we should keep our partners, but also make our own perfectly consistent product.  However, that’s like walking down the middle of the street.  You’re guaranteed to be run over by a car.  Every time it’s been tried (and it’s been tried many times by many people) it’s resulted in the partners leaving.  Who wants to compete with the company you’re relying on to provide a significant part of your phone?  At that point, it’s just a roundabout way of becoming a “go it alone” player. 

There have been comments here that say things like, “You should force your partner to do X.”  What those comments are really saying, though, is “You should use vendors, not partners.”  We do have a set of requirement that we make our partners pass before we’ll let them call their devices “Windows Mobile.”  But, by their nature, we can only push our partners so far.  Otherwise, they’re not partners. 

Microsoft’s stance

So what’s Microsoft’s stance on partners?  It varies from division to division.  The desktop OS division is the basis for the entire partner model, and they’re one of the most successful products ever invented.  On the other hand, Zune is doing the “go it alone” model and has seen some good initial success.  Xbox is one of the rare places that is somewhere in between.  The hardware is almost entirely “go it alone” but it relies heavily on partners for software (games). 

Windows Mobile is firmly in the partner model.  We’re sometimes frustrated with some of the things our partners do, and our partners can be equally frustrated with some of the things we do.  But we strongly believe that the worldwide phone space is one where variety is crucial.  I’d be very surprised to see that change anytime in the future.

Mike Calligaro