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Software Nightmare at 37,000 ft.

There’s something about a long, nighttime flight that focusses the mind. Whether it’s the feeling of being held captive, or the grinning steward charging you an arm and a leg for a G & T and some nuts; it could just be the feeling of powerlessness, or perhaps the sense of injustice that the guy with the open-toed sandals and the adenoid problem has chosen to sit beside you.

Hostages, extortion, injustice. It all sounds like the tag line for one of those so-bad-they’re-good airplane disaster movies from the 70s. Unfortunately, it also sums up a very serious present-day problem: the business practices of the major software publishers.

Firstly, there is the well-documented rise in the number of audits publishers have been inflicting on their long suffering customers, audits that increasingly seem to be more about revenue grabbing than ensuring compliance with their licence terms.

Then there is the more (ahem) subtle practice of changing the terms of the licence or the original contract as time progresses – a bit of hocus-pocus, and suddenly new clauses or word changes on annual renewal notices, contract hot links with nothing there… “Eh, Stewardess, there’s a gremlin sitting on the wing of the plane!”*

These changes are normally introduced around maintenance renewal dates and are presented as a positive move for the customer or simply not flagged up at all. Often, companies are not even aware that any change has occurred until they’re being audited or trying to negotiate a better deal. Then, and in many cases only then, are they presented with a list of Ts & Cs that are stacked totally against them. This is pretty nasty stuff and makes you want to reach for your oxygen mask.

There’s another bit of hocus-pocus that rarely gets mentioned – the practice of charging an arbitrary sum to continue supporting versions of the software that many customers are still running. We saw this in 2014 when Microsoft withdrew support for Windows XP; this resulted in companies and governments paying additional €millions to continue getting support. But let’s be clear here that Microsoft are not the only culprits. All software publishers do this.

Is this fair?

The publishers will tell you they cannot continue supporting older versions in perpetuity and that to do so costs them money, hence the extra charges. They will also argue that the newer versions offer more functionality, performance, productivity etc., so the customer benefits from scaling up. So first they apply a bit of financial pressure through the levy of an extra fee; then come the thumb screws: they simply say that they won’t support the older versions until the user caves in.

So, what happens to the users, and do these arguments even stack up? Is there more going on here with these arbitrary fees than just recouping the cost of keeping customers on support?

Keeping older versions supported costs us more money. There may be some credence to this, but I’m paying you enough already for support. You sold me this software with the rights, in most cases, to run all versions you made. It’s not like you need to keep spare parts. The skills you already use to support us are the same ones you use for all versions. Moreover, all bugs/issues with our current version have already been sorted out so it should technically cost you less. So why are your charges going up every year?

New versions are much better for you anyway. Well, that’s debatable. If they were, the chances are we would’ve already gone there. We know our business and our business doesn’t see the value and is happy with the version we’re on now. The future for a lot of this software is in the cloud, or elsewhere. Isn’t that where all your new products are going anyway?

These extra fees are shared across all clients running the older versions. That sounds fair. In theory. But when I did a straw poll at the last user group/convention, I discovered lots of other companies were also running older versions of the same software. And if they are paying anything like the €??k per annum we pay you then –

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have now begun our initial approach….”

So, you make something, I buy it from you, you stop supporting it, and then you leave me no choice as to what to do next! Where’s the fairness in that?

Software publishers need to ensure that their clients have options and solutions other than those they themselves prescribe. Instead of taking to court anyone who offers their clients an alternative – as Oracle have done with Rimini St – software publishers need to be cognisant of the value alternative support options provide their clients.

And if they don’t, then lawmakers and legislators need to step in and protect software users’ right to choose.


*“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, episode 123 of The Twilight Zone, with William Shatner. Worth watching.

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