Guarding the SW quality in OEM – ODM partnerships

English speakers may be familiar with the expression “Fox guarding the henhouse”. It stems from agrarian past, but the core concept is still relevant. Guarding something while having a strong interest in the outcome is potentially a recipe for disaster. There are many professions for the purpose of guarding quality, integrity, and soundness of what others do. Auditors for financial records and fire inspectors to maintain fire security are examples that are familiar to all of us.

Producing a mobile phone involves original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and original design manufacturer (ODM). In a nutshell, the OEM owns the consumer facing brand and the ODM designs and manufactures the physical device. OEMs add on top their own software, physical branding, and provide customer care. Now, the ODM’s goal is to produce a device that matches the OEM specifications as profitably as possible. The OEM aims to sell devices that appeal to consumers, which will increase brand loyalty and revenue, over time. 

For an ODM actively finding and fixing technical problems is work that eats into profit margins. So, here we have the fox guarding the henhouse: ODMs have incentives to turn a blind eye to issues to ensure their own profits and to make sure the tight schedules are met.

The Android ecosystem already has two neutral 3rd party ‘inspectors’: Android Compatibility Test Suite and carrier acceptance tests. Passing the tests are contractual requirements and nothing prevents OEMs from adding more beyond that minimum level. The trick is finding suitable test solutions that increase the consumer-perceived quality. For example, specific types of software issues can cause significant drops in battery life, like the one with iOS 14.

Requirements have to be based on empirical measurements and tests. They should be easily accessible for both the OEM and the ODM, ideally already when the OEM is requesting quotes from potential ODMs. That way ODMs can measure their own starting level and factor in the required work into their offer.

The test procedure needs to be easily repeatable. The tests will need to be re-run for each release. This way the OEM can track progress and find potential issues early enough for the ODM to fix them before the planned launch date. Also, bugs are easiest to fix when they are detected right away.

How about OEMs with little technical expertise of their own? Are they at the mercy of their ODM? Not necessarily. As with building inspectors, mobile device quality analysis is a service that includes expert advice on the severity of issues found. Experts also help in detailed bug reporting towards the ODMs. A shared test suite also allows the ODM’s engineers to verify fixes quickly.

If the OEM wants a neutral party to advise them on the technical quality of a device under development, then the OEM should pay for the service. The upside is the more direct control of the process and direct access to specialist advice. This arrangement gives the OEM direct control on how the cost of fixing issues balances with the improved quality. 

We’ll return to the topic of effient communications and co-operation between the OEM and the ODM in future blog posts.

If you’d like to get a free stability analysis for your device under development or hear more Profilence’s thoughts on efficiently shipping high quality devices, write to sales@profilence.com and we’ll be happy to set up a meeting.