Visions of a License

I talk a great deal about visions. About how they should drive organizations, about what they should contain, and about the importance they have on the effectiveness of teams. I see many cases of strong, clear, focussed visions leading to great success.

And I see the opposite. I see organizations that either lack a vision, or that don’t measure operations against the vision on a regular basis. I have two examples right in front of me.

Both examples show how easy it is to get distracted by “the plumbing”

Both examples are from the software industry and both show how easy it is to get distracted from the main point of the company and off to “the plumbing”. It’s a tale of my trying, seemingly in vain, to simply purchase two different companies’ products.

I have had, since youth, a deep interest in photography. And I have owned, in recent years, a parade of better and better photo printers. When I decided to donate two of my older printers to my children’s school, I found that it was a case of “you can’t get there from here”.

You see, both printers were driven by software called a RIP (raster image processor). RIPs are sophisticated programs that control, to minute detail, the output of the printers. They insure that what you see on the screen, ends up on the printer. Sure, you can just press “print” from within your program, but for best results you use a RIP.

There are a number of these programs, and they are all absurdly expensive. The license for these two printers was several thousand dollars (ouch!). So when I decided to donate the printers, clearly I wanted to donate the RIP to drive them. I wouldn’t want the school to have to pay for them. So began my ordeal.

You see, the licensing is obtuse, and is controlled by a tiny (the size of about 6 dimes stacked up) device called a “dongle”. You need the dongle plugged into your computer to run the program. This is a silly form of copy protection. I emailed the company and explained what I wanted to do. It went south from there.

Colorbyte explained that would have to return the dongle (to Florida), pay hundreds of dollars, pay for shipping both ways, and so on. I pleaded for mercy, this was merely a donation, perhaps they would want a charitable write-off too? I exchanged 8 emails, and had five 20 minute phone calls with the sales manager. In the interim I lost, and later found the silly little dongle. I offered to handle the case in any number of ways. I even agreed eventually agreed to their terms, and they suddenly changed the terms.

Colorbyte set up so many hurdles they lost an upgrade sale

Eventually, I gave up. I convinced my local dealer to sell me the competing product at cost (and take a write-off for the balance). Colorbyte set up so many hurdles they lost an upgrade sale — and ongoing maintenance updates from the school, no doubt. And undoubtedly cost the company many times the profit they ever made on me just from the time the sales manager spent handling my case.

I’m not alone. Reading the support forums for their software, Colorbyte’s confusing and obtuse licensing, and this ridiculous little device, cost their customers hours of frustration. The dongle drives people nuts, and makes all the customers feel like criminals.

Colorbyte’s vision clearly wasn’t to create hurdles for their customers, it was surely to create the best RIP they could. But their tech support time, their sales time, and I’m sure their software development time, has been sapped by the silly paranoia about software theft. This clearly costs the company in the long run.

My other experience involves the venerable giant of the graphics software industry, Adobe. Makers of Photoshop, Illustrator, and a number of other high-end graphics arts tools, the company has been a software industry stalwart for decades. Simply put, if you are really concerned with the quality of your graphics, you use Adobe’s products.

But the company’s vision of creating the world’s best graphics software and serving the graphics professional, which has served them so well, clearly doesn’t extend down to the licensing department. Buying Adobe’s products has always been hard. And I have the wounds to prove it.

Adobe has always charged far above any comparable product for their software. And because they make the best products, people pay the price. But along with this premium strategy (high price, but you get what you pay for) should come good service, respect for your customer, and a certain amount of benefit-of-the-doubt thinking.

But, no. Adobe, you see, is paranoid too. Because their products are out of the reach of the non-professional, they get stolen. Probably a lot. So Adobe has complex licensing and authorization hoops to jump through when you buy their products. And their licensing people are ruthless, and treat every customer as a potential criminal.

Their licensing people are ruthless, and treat every customer as a potential criminal.

I’ve just hung up the phone from a 54 minute phone call with Adobe customer service. My seventh such phone call in the last month. All because I wanted to buy their latest upgrade.

But I made it hard, you see, because I recently switched from Windows to the Mac. This makes it a “cross-platform upgrade”. And apparently something really hard to do. I had to sign and fax in three different affidavits, certifying that I’m going to destroy the old versions. I had to pay for the new version in advance. And I apparently had to wait.

I placed the order and jumped through all my hoops, five weeks ago today. I still have nothing to show for it. In the meantime, I’ve called customer service seven times, each time having more hurdles tossed in front of me. All for this seemingly simple $399 purchase — a purchase every other company would let me do online and download the software immediately.

Each time I call customer service, I find that the purchase has been stopped on another bureaucrat’s desk. Each time, no one bothered to tell me. Each time, I had to call, wait on hold, wait while some poor sap in Bangalore looks up the information, only to find that somehow the purchase failed to meet some ridiculous test. Last Friday, after another hour of hoop jumping, “Jen” promised me it would be expedited, and shipped overnight. She promised to email me the status immediately. I never heard from her again.

Clearly, Adobe, like Colorbyte, has lost all profit from this sale.

Today, “Frank” spent 54 minutes looking up my order, and eventually gave me a tracking number for DHL. A number DHL says does not exist.

And amazingly, I just got a call from “Jen” at Adobe to tell me that the heavens have opened and the product has shipped. Ground, not overnight. I should see it in 7 – 10 business days. Almost seven weeks after this simple purchase was made.

Clearly, Adobe, like Colorbyte, has lost all profit from this sale. Even at the rates of customer service in India, the phone charges, overhead, and pay to “Frank” and “Jen” has to have made this sale a total loss for the company. And has left them with a thoroughly upset customer. And as the old adage goes, “a happy customer tells a friend, an unhappy customer tells everyone they know.”

Both of these companies forgot why they got into the business — to create great software.

In the end, Adobe has probably lost site of their vision, just because of all this paranoia. And all because people who wouldn’t buy the product in the first place are stealing it. There is no lost revenue here, the thieves never could afford it, and people who make their living with it happily pay for it. And perhaps, when they grow up and can afford it, since they’ve been using it, the thieves would buy it. But they have to jump through the hoops — maybe it’s easier to steal it.

Both of these companies forgot why they got into the business — to create great software. They let paranoia over come them, and let their lawyers or “compliance people” rule the day. They forgot customer service, and respect for their customer. They forgot their vision. And they are much the worse for it.