Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 89 / OCTOBER 1987 / PAGE 54

Computers and Society

David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor

Son Of A Nation Of Thieves

I am writing what I hope will be my last column on this topic for a while. Some time back, I wrote a piece highly criticizing software theft by computer users, who were depriving developers of income for their hard work. The responses to this column were so defensive of software theft that I published another article to respond to some misconceptions I felt needed to be addressed. It seemed that many people took the position that anything one could get away with was fair game, and if some software developers went out of business, they should have chosen better fields in which to make money to start with.

There were a few letters that went on to justify software theft, by pointing out that manufacturers weren't very supportive of their customers anyway, but I tended to treat this response as a weak justification for unjustifiable behavior.

As soon as this second article hit the streets, my mailbox once again filled with responses from readers. This time I heard from those who defended my position in support of copyright law enforcement. However, the subject of poor after-sale support reared its ugly head, and since these people were not using this phenomenon to justify software copying, I thought it was worth a little investigation. After making a few calls and exploring some problems with software I had purchased, I found that the readers' horror stories were all too true.

I think it's time for a heart-to-heart talk with software developers and manufacturers. If my position on copying irritated a lot of software users, this article may irritate a few developers as well.

We shall see.

The Nature Of Software

It seems to me that all companies in the software-development business should acknowledge that a computer program is not a static document, sold into a marketplace with no need for after-sale support. Even shoe salesmen acknowledge that a customer may have to wear a pair of shoes for a few hours to make sure they fit properly.

There are two important reasons for after-sale software support. First, the customer may have purchased a program to perform a task that's not quite what the program was designed to do. This happens a lot. Software names and advertisements are not always good indicators of the program's ability to function, and software reviews are not always helpful. Many times the program can be used to do what the customer wanted, but the manual isn't clear enough. In this case, it is essential that a software manufacturer provide sufficient support to help customers. New applications for the product should be flagged so they can be addressed in later releases of the product, thus amplifying the software's value.

The second reason for providing good customer support is that all software is buggy to one extent or another. For example, some programs I have used since 1984 suddenly stopped working because Apple "fixed" its operating system. As a software developer, this is an annoyance, but I must upgrade my software if I'm to have any more sales, since all the new computers (and most of the old ones) will be using the new operating system within a few months. This is expensive, of course, but it isn't the customer's fault.

Aside from this type of bug, there are those bugs, indigenous to programs, that can lie fallow for a long time before anyone notices them. These too must be fixed, and the customer has a right to benefit from these fixes, since most bugs are found by the customers anyway. My own company, Innovision, is in its second year of production of Calliope, and we are still finding gremlins in the code. I don't know any other developer of a sophisticated program who has done any better in releasing bug-free code.

The point is, as the designer and manufacturer of these products, bugs are our problems, not the customers'. Many readers complained that software companies were rude to them when they told them about the bugs in their programs. Why? The customer didn't put them there—the developer did.

The Nature Of Support

Let's say you are a responsible software developer and you have a schedule for bug fixes. How does the customer benefit from these repairs? First, if the repair is for a feature that seriously cripples the functional ability of the product—or worse, destroys the user's data—new disks should be sent to the entire installed base of users at absolutely no cost. Customers should be encouraged to send registration cards to software developers, in order for those companies to be able to be reached. If car companies have to conduct recalls for oversights that can damage their users, we need to support recalls for software that can damage data.

As far as I'm concerned, it's fine to ask the customer to return the original disk first, so you don't have to pay for new media, but it's not OK to charge for "upgrades" that are actually bug fixes. If you're concerned about the cost of upgrading customers for life, build this cost into your product price in the first place, and let the customer know why the product costs so much. The customer who balks at a $100 software package because disks only cost $2 needs to be told where that money is going. On the other hand, it is annoying for a customer to be charged an extra $10-$50 for a disk that repairs certain bugs not present on new releases of the product, while the new releases are sold to new customers at the old price—new customers don't have to pay extra for the "debugged" version. Remember, your customers are your friends, and you should treat them as such.

Oversold Programs

While not in the category of bugs, there is an aspect of software marketing that can cause as much user frustration as a buggy program. I'm talking about programs with "features" that never made it from the ad copy to the product.

As a member of the press, I'm deluged with glitz on a daily basis. Most of the programs I get are pretty good, but lately I've been getting some heavily-hyped software that's a waste of electricity to boot up. In fact, it seems the fancier the promotion, the worse the software. Tragically, much of the Apple IIGS software falls into this category. This same software is backed by megabucks ad campaigns designed to get it into the lap of every Apple IIGS owner.

Unfortunately, because many users don't know who to blame, I've been hearing from readers who are complaining about the "slow speed" of the IIGS graphics, when in fact, the fault lies in the overpromoted software, not in the computer. By the way, I'm also an Apple IIGS software developer and, yes, development for this machine is hard, but that's my problem, not the customer's.

Some software companies appear to have allocated too much money for advertising and not enough for software development. This approach leads to immense initial sales, and based on letters from readers, it leads to a lot of dissatisfied customers. It's time we reexamined our priorities.

Why Are You In Business?

The whole foundation of business is to find a need and fill it. Businesses exist to serve the needs of their customers. In our quest for financial wealth, many people place the focus on money as though that were a goal in itself.

While money is an important part of business, and profitability is essential, the way we think of money needs to be examined. I've seen a lot of companies that operated from the spreadsheet. The entire focus was on bringing in the maximum amount of cash with the least amount of effort. Most of these companies have disappeared, but for a while, it seemed their stars were rising. An alternative, and far healthier view, is taken by companies based on the notion of service to customers. In such organizations, money is viewed as "applause." It is the reward that comes from providing service—from truly meeting the needs of customers. This message lies at the heart of the numerous "in pursuit of the search of oneminute excellence" books on the market today. And yet, in their quests for the easy buck, many companies still fail to understand the functions of their business.

Companies that don't take responsibility for their products not only hurt themselves, they also hurt our entire industry. My readers have showered me with horror stories (no more please!), and I have, in a few cases, been so shocked that I called the companies in question to try to get things straightened out. In most cases the problem was one of miscommunication, so the problem was solved. However, in a disturbing number of cases, the attitude was one of caveat emptor—an attitude that has no place in our society today.

Let's put some pride back in our industry. Let's realize that our customers are our most treasured asset, and let's start treating them as we should. If we do, we will all be rewarded beyond our dreams. Developers will be able to make a living from their efforts, and computer users will get the quality and service they deserve.

Dr. Thornburg welcomes letters from readers and can be reached at P.O. Box 1317, Los Altos, CA 94023.