Want to pick a little fight? Talk about football. If you’re in most of the world, the 2014 World Cup is already looming on your horizon. If you’re in the United States, then you’re probably thinking about next month’s Super Bowl XLVI, the big matchup between American Football teams. (This year, I’m rooting for my native New England Patriots. Prefer the New York Giants? Let’s take it outside.)
Sports. Politics. Religion. Those are all tiny little trivial fights. If you want a big fight, look at reactions whenever Facebook changes something. The vitriol flies as millions (billions?) of users rage against Facebook’s audacity, whether it’s something minor like friend recommendations or something major like the forced migration to the new Timeline personal profile. (I like Timeline. Disagree? Let’s take it outside.)
Commercial services change and evolve, whether their customers like it or not.
• Sometimes services change in order to attract new customers.
• Sometimes services change in order to fend off competitors.
• Sometimes services change in order to directly drive revenue.
• Sometimes services change in order to improve customer lock-in.
• Sometimes services change in order to reduce costs or improve profit margins.
• And sometimes services change in order to increase customer satisfaction. (In my experience, that’s rarely the driver.)
My neighborhood has a wonderful grocery store. About a decade ago, it was looking a bit rundown. A competing supermarket did a major remodeling, and shortly thereafter, so did our neighborhood store. The results were terrible. Too few shelves, a wide-open arrangement that was pretty but had less merchandise. A few months later, the store remodeled again. It had no choice. But each time the store changes (and the owner continues to experiment and innovate), we find the disruption annoying—then can’t find our favorite foods. We don’t like the change. After a few weeks, we get used to it. And then we don’t like the next remodel. Hey, that’s just how life is.
While the owner may say that he’s remodeling in order to make the store nicer, most of the time he’s motivated to drive revenue or cut costs. As long as he doesn’t make the store much worse in the process, and thereby lose too many customers, it’s a good business move.
What about software? When we talk about products like Microsoft’s Visual Studio or the Eclipse JDT or IBM’s DB2, you have a lot of choices when it comes to change. Since software is delivered as bits, you can choose to upgrade to the bits or not.
• You can choose to install the new bits as soon as they come out: Maybe the upgrade solves a specific problem you had, swats a scary bug or offers some compelling features.
• If you’re nervous or on a budget, you might wait for the first point release or service pack, or even hold back for next major release.
• You might decide never to upgrade.
• Or, if the upgrade is sufficiently obnoxious, you might switch products altogether.
That only works when software is a product. What about Software-as-a-Service? When you use Facebook or the Google Calendar APIs or a hosted code repository or a hosting package, you aren’t using software. You are using a service. You aren’t buying or licensing software. Your ability to upgrade, or to sit back and wait, is totally at the whim of the service provider.
Some service providers, of course, give customers the option to migrate early to new versions of their service, or to temporarily delay the migration. Some do not give you a choice. When you buy bits, you are in control. When you use a service, you are not in control. Whether it’s Facebook, your code repository, the layout of your local supermarket or the television channels carried by your local telecommunications provider, you can either go along with the change or find a new service provider.
Sadly, few consumers understand or appreciate that services are services. They don’t understand why they can’t stay on Facebook 2008. They don’t understand why the changes don’t reflect their own desires.
That’s not how it works. Facebook isn’t making changes for the benefit of its existing customers. It’s making them in order to help its own bottom line by creating new money-making opportunities for itself and its partners, while also encouraging users to spend more time on the site (so they see more ads). The company is betting that while many customers will complain, relatively few will actually leave the service. Plain and simple.
Now, how about those Patriots? Write me at email@example.com.
Alan Zeichick is editorial director of SD Times. Read his blog at ztrek.blogspot.com.