Jul 23, 2009

Channel Collaboration Brings Wireless Innovation to Market

Sometimes real news isn’t new. Sometimes it’s enough to discover that something you barely noticed has subsequently blossomed.

In today’s New York Times, David Pogue reminds us of a market-making collaboration between two companies more than two years ago. But back in 2007 it was hard to tell how big the collaboration’s payoff would be. Now we know.

The two companies are Apple, maker of iPhones, and Cingular Wireless, a network provider later rebranded AT&T Mobility. Apple had developed “Visual Voicemail,” which would let people check their incoming voice messages by glancing at a list on their phone screen and chosing the order instead of being tied to sequential listening to each message one at a time. No doubt, phone users would love this feature. Problem was, big wireless networks at the time weren’t designed to link with software that converted voice data into visible readouts.

For both engineering and business reasons collaboration was key, and in this case an exclusive relationship between supplier and carrier probably proved indispensible. As Mr. Pogue points out, the engineering costs were too high for Cingular, or any carrier, to absorb without relaible assurances about adequate product sales. In this situation, that was done by gaining sole rights to iPhone’s sales. An exclusive also benefited Apple, which could then concentrate on perfecting a single phone for use on a single network, an approach very much in keeping with Apple’s preference to wait for its pitch then swing for the fences.

Was Visual Voicemail either company’s only reason to go exclusive? I doubt it. But VV probably helped focus executives on both sides to get past the head-to-head negotiation mentality and accent the value for each party of focusing on new solutions and usage experiences for end consumers.

Working together like Apple and Cingular apparently did remains the exception. But intensifying competition in all industries is going to make it the rule. Where relationship exclusivity helped both companies win big, tomorrow’s collaborations will be essential simply to win small.

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