Friday, September 25, 2009

More thoughts on the Novell support change

Something struck me in comments on the last post about this that I think needs repeating on a full post.

Novell spent quite a bit of time attempting to build up their 'community' forums for peer-support. Even going so far as to seed the community with supported 'sysops' who helped catalyze others into participating, and creating a vibrant peer support community. This made sense because it built both goodwill and brand loyalty, but also reduced the cost-center known as 'support'. All those volunteers were taking the minor-issue load off of the call-in support! Money saved!

Fast forward several years. Novell bought SuSE and got heavily into Open Source. Gradually, as the OSS products started to take off commercially, the support contracts became the main money maker instead of product licenses. Just as suddenly, this vibrant goodwill-generating peer-support community is taking vital business away from the revenue-stream known as 'support'. Money lost!

Just a simple shift in the perception of where 'support' fits in the overall cost/revenue stream makes this move make complete sense.

Novell will absolutely be keeping the peer support forums going because they do provide a nice goodwill bonus to those too cheap to pay for support. However.... with 'general support' product-patches going behind a pay-wall, the utility of those forums decreases somewhat. Not all questions, or even most of them for that matter, require patches. But anyone who has called in for support knows the first question to be asked is, "are you on the latest code," and that applies to forum posts as well.

Being unable to get at the latest code for your product version means that the support forum volunteers will have to troubleshoot your problem based on code they may already be well past, or not have had recent experience with. This will necessarily degrade their accuracy, and therefore the quality of the peer support offered. This will actively hurt the utility of the peer-support forums. Unfortunately, this is as designed.

For users of Novell's active-development but severe underdog products such as GroupWise, OES2, and Teaming+Conferencing, the added cost of paying for a maintenance/support contract can be used by internal advocates of Exchange, Windows, and SharePoint as evidence that it is time to jump ship. For users of Novell's industry-leading products such as Novell Identity Management, it will do exactly as designed and force these people into maintaining maintenance contracts.

The problem Novell is trying to address are the kinds of companies that only buy product licenses when they need to upgrade, and don't bother with maintenance unless they're very sure that a software upgrade will fall within the maintenance period. I know many past and present Novell shops who pay for their software this way. It has its disadvantages because it requires convincing upper management to fork over big bucks every two to five years, and you have to justify Novell's existence every time. The requirement to have a maintenance contract in order for your highly skilled staff to get at TIDs and patches, something that used to be both free and very effective, is a real-world major added expense.

This is the kind of thing that can catalyze migration events. A certain percentage will pony up and pay for support every year, and grumble about it. Others, who have been lukewarm towards Novell for some time due adherence to the underdog products, may take it as the sign needed to ditch these products and go for the industry leader instead.

This move will hurt their underdog-product market-share more than it will their mid-market and top-market products.

If you've read Novell financial statements in the past few years you will have noticed that they're making a lot more money on 'subscriptions' these days. This is intentional. They, like most of the industry right now, don't want you to buy your software in episodic bursts every couple years. They want you to put a yearly line-item in your budget that reads, "Send money to Novell," that you forget about because it is always there. These are the subscriptions, and they're the wave of the future!

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