Why Microsoft developers need to unionize

I've yet to meet a Windows Phone developer who's happy about the way the latest SDK release is being handled. Perhaps a little industrial action is required...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor

To bring you up to speed, Microsoft announced that access to the Windows Phone 8 (WP8) SDK would not be made public, but that developers could apply for early access. The caveat? Only developers with Windows Phone 7 (WP7) apps in the Windows Phone Marketplace/Store could apply. It later transpired, as you might expect, that the SDK was locked down with an NDA. Developers who got access to the SDK were not allowed to discuss it publicly.

Cue a total shambles. There are a whole slew of developers who wanted access to the SDK, but didn't get it. There are developers who asked for access, got it, but then don't use it. And all the time because rather than in a proper NDA where you form relationships with the participants, Microsoft staff are running around on Twitter mopping up where people have accidentally leaked stuff. And, as you might expect, the whole lot has been intentially leaked anyway.

Personally, I think limiting access to the SDK was a terrible move. The "word on the street" as to why that's happened if because it's got some unannounced features in it that Microsoft want to keep the wraps on. Really? As James Kendrick reflected on Twitter last night (and I'm paraphrasing) if you've got some killer feature that's going to put someone off buying an iPhone 5 and waiting for WP8, why on earth would you not start banging the drum about it early? The Obsorne effect cuts both ways.

Developers of the world, unite

I've never seen Microsoft run a pre-release programme like this before. I've been NDA'd on various developer initiatives with Microsoft over my career and each time it's very personal, always one-to-one, and very clear and well defined. What's happening with the WP8 SDK is just a mess.

What you do hear from the Windows Phone developer community, almost universally, is that they don't want this sort of programme. But they do want information. They want early, universal access to the SDK. (Which save for this example Microsoft has always done historically.) Importantly though, they want to help. They want to invest in the platform and drive it forward.

So what can developers do if they want to make Microsoft communicate more openly and clearly and stop them doing this sort of release in future? There's precedent for this - they can form a trade union.

And it's at this point I need to carefully pick an example that doesn't break an NDA, or give oxygen to any leaks …

"What's that Microsoft? You won't tell us what's happening with Project Cool in the Windows Phone 10 timescale? Brothers and sisters? Strike!"

One out, all out.

(For reference, Project Cool is circa-2000 vintage was the code name for C#.)

User groups

OK, so striking is going to be difficult - and I'm being illustrative rather than serious. The last thing you want to do is get fired (or even go bankrupt) because your Windows Phone comrades have gone out on strike over the latest fight and you're unable to do your job and ship software. However, trade unionism does tell us a lot about the power of collective bargaining and gaining power through organisation.

And although we're talking primarily about Microsoft, this applies equally well to all of the platform vendors.

At the moment, Microsoft only seems to engage with their commercial partners. Back in the day, Microsoft was better at developer engagement. It's generally regarded that the shine has come off of that story over recent years, which is a shame because now Microsoft needs developer buy-in now more than ever. Through formally structured, collective action, the developer community could reassert itself on Microsoft by transforming itself, en masse, into a proper, commercial partner, as opposed to a bunch of happy-go-lucky geeks with no option by to tow the line.

Microsoft has always been willing to listen - I think what's happened over recent years is that the language has changed to be more commercial and less "developer-y". (I think this happened when Gates left. Ballmer isn't a developer.) As is often the case in life, you can't change other people - you can only change yourself. If you want to communicate better with Microsoft learn to speak their language. Problem is, your buying power is too little to do that. Microsoft wouldn't feel it if you didn't renew your MSDN subscription, or started developing for iOS.

There's precedent for fixing this however - it's just that it's not typically called a "union". Although in developer-land we tend to think of "user groups" as a nice place to have a chat and see some interesting talks, a good number of the major enterprise software players collaborate with a different sort of "user group". You might call them "customer groups". Customers that individually don't have much sway - because they spend too little to appear on the vendor's radar - group together to present a united front. The vendor listens because on aggregate the spend is much bigger. Or more to the point, the amount of damage they can inflict becomes more relevant.

That sort of group works collectively, collaboratively to drive forward their case and make their needs felt. They talk amongst themselves, decide what they need, and go back to the vendor with their demands. It usually makes both parties stronger, as common sense would suggest. Clumping a few thousand developers together with a united message of "work in this way, or we won't build for your platform" is likely to be super-effective.

So, Windows Phone 8 developers ... organise, arrange, and apply pressure.

Claim your power.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

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