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Redmond Vendor Management Matters

There's been a lot of press in the last 24 hours concerning MSN China's apparent (and now acknowledged) theft of code and copying of design from Taiwan's Plurk microblogging service for the beta of its own Juku service. You can read Visual Studio Magazine's coverage here. Turns out the work was outsourced to an external vendor which, in turn, was the source of the plagiarism. Microsoft, in a public statement, said "in the wake of this incident, Microsoft and our MSN China joint venture will be taking a look at our practices around applications code provided by third-party vendors."

I hope so. Because this isn't a one-off anomaly; it's part of a larger phenomenon.

Remember the whole "Mojave" experiment, wherein Microsoft invited individuals to work with its allegedly new operating system, code-named Mojave, which was actually just Vista in disguise? I thought that was a neat campaign and a good way to deflect some of the FUD hurled at Vista. But do you remember the first take at the Mojave Web site? It contained numerous participant interview videos and made them browse-able and viewable. Too bad the first version of the site used Flash for the video format instead of Silverlight. And guess what? This was another outsource vendor gaffe.

There's at least one other such screw-up I could mention, and it's even more embarrassing, but I reported it to Microsoft before it got out and promised discretion. Trust me though, if the two examples of outsourcing unruliness above don't have you convinced of a systemic problem in Redmond with vendor management, this one would tip the scale.

Not all vendors are bad. In fact, my own firm, twentysix New York, has developed many things for Microsoft, including reference applications, starter kits and hands-on-labs. We do good work. So did another vendor brought in to re-do the entire Mojave site using Silverlight. And they did it all in just two weeks.

Outsourcing isn't the problem. Quality control of outsourced work-product seems to be something that Microsoft could and should shore up, however. Given the tendency of vendors to use the tools and technologies most familiar to them, rather than most consistent with their client's offerings (which is understandable, given the budgets on some of these projects), Microsoft is deluding itself if it thinks common sense will prevent more gaffes like these. And unfortunately, some vendors don't just disregard good judgment, they disregard ethics too. Contractual stipulation may prohibit this, but that isn't enough; there has to be a verification regime as well.

Posted by Andrew J. Brust on 12/16/2009 at 12:52 PM


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