Biting the Hand …

I’ve been doing a slow burn over poor software quality and support for years, but now I’m getting mad.

The last straw happened a few weeks ago when a software vendor sent me a direct mail piece. The banner across the top said, "Ensure your host access software tests Y2K ready. Upgrade now to our new releases -- and save up to 50 percent off the retail price." The letter is filled with FUD -- fear, uncertainty, and doubt -- to convince me I need to buy the new version, including statements like "the ‘hidden problem’ of non-compliant host access software could still corrupt your host data or cause errors in data retrieval. So why take chances? . . . P.S. The clock is ticking. Take advantage of this offer and stop worrying."

Wait a minute. I’m just a skinny bald guy from Minnesota, but it seems to me that if they made software that will somehow break Jan. 1, 2000, they ought to fix the problem for free. I’m the consumer here -- why should I pay for an upgrade to fix a problem that is several years old?

I am actually very happy with this company’s software, but the direct mail piece highlights a problem that is common in the PC software industry and our attitude toward it. We expect poor quality and vendors often deliver it. Here are some other examples.

I have a customer who upgraded one desktop to Windows 98. Some Lotus Word Pro documents that worked before the upgrade suddenly had problems printing. We called Lotus for help and they wanted $35 to talk to us. Once we paid up, a recorded message came on and said the average hold time was -- get this – two to four hours!

We did a large mailing a few months ago. After I extracted the names and put them together in a file with comma-delimited fields, we could not get Microsoft Word 97 on a Windows NT workstation to recognize this file as a mail-merge data source. When we tried the same operation on a clunky Windows 98 laptop, it worked. Go figure! I know the standard fix: Reboot it, and if that doesn’t work, rebuild it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Speaking of clunky laptops, my IBM ThinkPad 380D is a piece of work. A few weeks ago, I listened to an IBM guy at a show say, "Don’t you hate it when you call for support and you wait on hold for two hours, only to get some idiot who doesn’t know as much as you do?" Well, I called IBM’s support number about a problem with my ThinkPad and a Megahertz combo LAN adapter/modem. I talked to several people who didn’t know as much as me, and I waited almost six months for a BIOS upgrade that still didn’t fix my problem.

We all have horror stories. But more important, why do we have this problem and how do we fix it?

To gain some perspective, look how the industry works. PC software vendors make money by constantly putting out new versions and asking us to buy their packages over and over again. For example, how many versions of Microsoft Office have we purchased over the past five years? Meanwhile, most vendors make no money from tech support. It costs a fortune to provide top quality support, and we’re not willing to pay for it.

Are the problems the fault of those big, bad vendors? I say no. It’s our own fault. We demand low-cost products with pretty interfaces, but we are not willing to pay for high quality and premium support. So vendors keep producing newer features and prettier interfaces to get an edge over other vendors, with testing and support taking a back seat. We get what we pay for, and then we complain about it.

To fix the problem, we need to fix ourselves. What if we started paying a token amount for licenses or an ongoing monthly fee for support and new version upgrades? That would change the incentives for everyone. Instead of churning out new features that don’t work, vendors would concentrate on support and quality improvements. Everyone wins in this scenario. Vendors make money doing market research, quality and support improve, and consultants can concentrate on delivering solutions instead of troubleshooting problems.

Vendors and consumers alike -- what do you think? How should we fix this problem. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at