As yearly upgrades come around, so too the debate over the worth of technical support/annual maintenance plans resurfaces. As could be expected the usual suspects make the usual arguments (including me).
Those who are upset/outraged by required tech support plans make four arguments: (1) I never use support (“haven’t used it in 10 years”); (2) support is rotten anyway and never solves my problems so why should I pay for it; (3) when new releases just solve existing problems why should I have to pay for it; and finally (4) the cost and/or punitive charges for renewing support is outrageous.
Let’s start by setting aside the cost issue for a moment. Programs such as Time Matters and Amicus (not that they are necessarily an worse than other programs, just the ones I happen to be familiar with) have historically had major problems with the quality of support. In fairness, it should be said that their support is probably better today than it has been in the past.
At the same time, tech support cannot “fix” basic flaws in the software, it can only fix issues that are known to work correctly but for some reason in your installation are not. If a program is not designed to do “x”, tech support is not going to be able to “fix” that fact (although they may be able to offer a workaround). To expect anything else would be totally unrealistic.
The core of this view is the “I never use it, why should I pay for it” argument. This misses the crucial point that a support contract is like insurance. Chances are that the people making this argument have malpractice insurance, automobile insurance, home insurance, etc. It would never occur to them to say “I haven’t had an accident in 10 years, why should I pay for insurance?” (aside from the fact that it may be a legal requirement to register a car) or “I am not going to commit malpractice so I don’t need the insurance.” The reason for this has to do with the nature of insurance: when you do need it, you really need it. It is part of the cost of running a law practice, owning a car, home, etc. Similarly, tech support should be viewed as part of the cost of owning software.
The question of cost is a different issue. People shop around for insurance all the time: with a software program this is not an option. The only alternative is to rely on a consultant for “tech support.” This, however, has limits since a consultant may not be able to resolve more advanced/technical issues with the underlying code. Without tech support a consultant may not be able to obtain assistance from the software program maker when it is needed (read: really needed). If you run into a major problem, consulting costs can also mount up fairly rapidly.
So the question is, what is a fair price for support? Historically, programs such as PCLaw (before it was acquired by LexisNexis) and Worldox charged 20% of the purchase price for tech support and included all future upgrades in that sum. Not coincidentally, this led to the vast majority of users purchasing support. For PCLaw at least, tech support was a profit center at that time. In addition, both products had excellent tech support teams.
Today, however, the “Annual Maintenance Plans” offered by Time Matters and Amicus tend to range closer to 40% or even more of the purchase price (although the Time Matters plan is more difficult to calculate because it is no longer possible to purchase a product without support and the cost is not split out – but this is about what it was when the two charges were still separate). Amicus does offer less expensive options or the ability to opt out of tech support. In short, users are being charged for BOTH support AND yearly upgrades, whereas in the old Worldox/PCLaw model there was a single charge of 20% of the purchase price which included all upgrades. Worldox still maintains this charge and its support is still among the best in the business.
Proponents of the Annual Maintenance Plans/Yearly Upgrades often take a page from the 19th century Victorians and argue “onward and upward forever” – the software is getting better and better, easier to use, more features, etc. Here’s a typical quote: “All sorts of little operations work more intuitively...it is important to bear in mind the many small but daily benefits that upgrades deliver along with greater protection against technological breakdowns and mismatches.” More extreme proponents sometimes put Voltaire’s Pangloss (“all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”) to shame.
The problem of yearly upgrades is separate from but related to Annual Maintenance Plans. Partly in order to justify the additional cost (what good is an annual maintenance plan that pays for upgrades if there is no upgrade or if the upgrade comes a couple of weeks after the maintenance plan expires?), software makers have resorted to yearly releases with generally disastrous results. As I have said many times, there is not a software company on the planet with the resources to put out reliable yearly releases. Yearly releases suffer from three main problems:
(1) They introduce flashy “new” features that are half-baked and don’t work very well. Since they have to continue to offer new features to justify the yearly releases, they never go back and fix the insufficiencies and flesh out the features in subsequent years. Amicus Attorney’s potentially very powerful Custom Records feature is an example of this problem.
(2) Since developers are constantly under the gun, quality control suffers and new bugs are introduced in the yearly releases. Thus Time Matters 10 managed to break or partially break the links with both Worldox and PCLaw. The latter is particularly egregious since LexisNexis owns both products and apparently the link was broken due to a failure of communication between development teams (shades of Microsoft!).
(3) When all is said and done, the releases are incremental. Unless there is a particular feature that your firm has been dying to have, overall a cumulative new release would be worth paying for only every 3 years or so. The release schedule for WordPerfect is 18-24 months, which is more reasonable.
Three years is about the life cycle of a given software program. Not coincidentally, many programs support only three back releases. That is, if you are currently on release 10, then versions 10, 9 and 8 are supported. When release 11 comes out, then versions 11, 10 and 9 will be supported. This is simply a matter of economics: software makers do not have the resources to continue supporting old releases ad infinitum. In addition, they are caught in the hardware/software leapfrog problem. Older releases may not run under Windows 7. Realistically there is nothing software makers can do about it. This is why I tell most of my clients that, absent unusual circumstances or new features they specifically need, they should plan on upgrading about every third release.
In summary: are annual maintenance plans a good idea? Absolutely. Are clients being extorted to pay for something unnecessary and in many cases counterproductive (yearly upgrades) in order to maintain the necessary insurance (tech support)? Absolutely.
Since the above two conclusions tend to be in contradiction, it is up to the specific firms as to which way they want to jump on the subject.