Software Upgrading As 'Collusion'?

By Allen Bernard

(Back to article)

There is intentional — but non-criminal — collusion going on in the software industry today, says Tom DeMarco, a Cutter Consortium Fellow.

Granted there aren't a bunch of software industry big-wigs sitting around smoky back rooms figuring out how to bilk millions out of their customers, DeMarco says, but the current upgrade cycle most companies find themselves locked into with today's desktop software is tantamount to the same thing.

"Oh, absolutely, I think there's collusion," says DeMarco. "I'm not overstating that. I think there's collusion. I think it's a conscious decision by everybody (in the business). They're not on the phone. I think everybody understands the way the game is played."

In other words, with so many interdependencies between operating systems and third-party software makers, there is an unspoken but well-understood notion that when one makes changes it is an opportunity for the other to put out upgrades that customers must pay for or risk losing functionality.

"You could make everything totally backward-compatible and forward-compatible," he says. "I mean it's trivial. You just do it. So the decision not to do it is one that is becoming more and more transparent as being kind of a protection racket. Anyway, that's what my clients think."

Far Too Savvy

Not so, says Dave Sommer of Computing Technology Industry Association, better known as CompTIA, which represents thousands of software vendors and resellers.

"I think software purchasers are far too savvy and sophisticated to allow themselves to be victims of (collusion) … the way it was described by Cutter," says Sommer, who is VP of eBusiness and Software Solutions.

"Software purchasers are only going to buy if they see a return on investment. (Cutter) is using some words that they legally can't prove are correct and intended really to incite the software purchaser to not really understand what they're getting. But the software purchasers understand what they're getting."

Upgrades are a necessary, and anticipated part of the business. Without upgrades, people would not be able to get more functionality, says Sommer, and this costs money. If customers aren't happy, they can always change vendors.

But, argues DeMarco, while that may have been the case 10 or 20 years ago, when upgrades meant significant improvements in performance, today many software packages work just fine and many upgrades are more about making software companies money.

"The days in which people are willing to go and upgrade Microsoft Office or even Windows of their own volition because there's something appealing about it, I think those are over," says DeMarco. "There's nothing appealing out there. And when companies find themselves making an upgrade it's because they have their backs to the wall. They have no choice."

Vista is a great example of this. How many of your current desktop applications are compatible with Vista? How many will be? This can be an expensive question to answer, according to DeMarco.

Dave Thompson, CIO of Symantec, sees the situation from both perspectives -- as a purchaser of desktop software for his company and as the CIO of a technology company selling desktop and enterprise software. And he sides with CompTIA's position that there is choice in the market, collusion is an illusion, and customers have free will to do as they please.

"I really think it's a stretch to think there's collusion … because of the complexity of software and the interdependencies," says Thompson. "It's unrealistic to create a perfect technology that would never need to be upgraded. This person (DeMarco) doesn't know technology obviously and doesn't understand the complexity involved in writing multi-million lines of code."

The bottom line, says DeMarco, is companies, in increasing numbers, are looking to avoid the whole mess by leasing software or moving to open source. Let the software companies themselves shoulder the burden of maintenance and upgrades. Once this happens in large enough numbers, says DeMarco, then you will see a lot more backward and forward compatibility built into products from the outset.

"If you're licensing a piece of software, it is very likely to be backward-compatible as much as possible because the vendor wants people in all stages of, for instance, operating system maturing, to be able to use their product," says DeMarco. "So, they're incentivized to make compatibility with all versions of existing software."