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The perils of partnering; Adobe, Kinko’s and Oracle’s four-letter word

If anyone needs a nudge about the perils of partnering, the recent Adobe/Kinko/Fedex imbroglio is a wakeup call.

Smaller partners of big software companies have to look out for their self interest every second.

Here’s what happened:

Adobe Systems decided to put a pushbutton link to Fedex/Kinko in the latest version of its Acrobat software. That way a customer could create a document, format it with Adobe software, and send it paperlessly over the Web to Kinko’s for hard-copy output. Think of the courier mileage saved! For ease of use, it’s a lovely scenario.

One small thing: Kinko’s is a huge partner for Adobe, but so are thousands of smaller print shops who, by the way, compete with Kinkos.

And those smaller shops—who might in aggregate even own a bigger share of Adobe’s than Kinko’s—most certainly don’t appreciate the preferential treatment. (Wall Street Journal story here.)

When Adobe favored its large partners (Kinko/Fedex) over myriad smaller partners, it repeated similar miscues from the tech era.

It may be natural for a large software company to favor its largest partners, but it does so at great peril.

My favorite case in point: Oracle execs asked about that company’s partnering strategy invariably talk up Dell, which is a huge partner in that it bundles a lot of Oracle (and Microsoft and whatever) software on its boxes. What those Oracle execs repeatedly fail to understand is that Dell is one four-letter word to which every other potential Oracle channel partner views with nothing short of abhorrence.

Every time Oracle (or Microsoft or Acme Software) names the direct-to-customer, VAR-disenfranchising Dell as a preferred partner, blood pressures spike among the army of other Oracle partners. What some forward-thinking Oracle exec should remember is that when it comes to small businesses, these smaller solution providers with their hands-on capabilities often make a helluva lot better implementation partners than Dell. Or Kinko’s. Or whoever.

Addendum: two days after The Journal and others reported on the Adobe dustup, the company agreed to pull the offending button from Acrobat.

Barbara Darrow, a Boston-area journalist, can be reached at

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