MS sins, limits users' tech support

There was a time when 'unlimited free support' meant just that. Now the only thing unlimited is the scope vendors give themselves for changing their policies.

          There was a time when "unlimited free support" meant just that. Now the only thing unlimited is the scope vendors give themselves for changing their policies.

          On August 11 a Microsoft press release in the US formally announced a large number of changes to the company's support polices, which took effect September 14. One change was that the unlimited free support provided for retail purchases of Office suites and applications would, as of September 14, be limited to two free support incidents.

          For those who think Microsoft's announcements get overplayed by the trade press, it may be a surprise that this announcement received almost no press coverage. Few Office customers knew of the change until after September 14, and only because they made a support call. Since then, The Gripe Line has had a steady diet of complaints from readers, many of them recent purchasers of Office 2000 applications, who feel they are being cheated out of something they were promised.

          "I bought my Microsoft products based on unlimited personal support," wrote one reader who found out about the new policy when he called for PowerPoint 2000 support. "To retroactively change a support policy is both deceitful and unethical -- a fact I brought to the attention of my technical service advisor during my PowerPoint call (the first of my two free Office calls).

          "His response: 'Look at the fine print --Microsoft reserves the right to change support policies at any time.' Imagine if you bought a new car and a week after you bought it, the manufacturer retroactively reduced the warranty coverage to one month."

          Wrote another reader who had recently purchased his Office 2000 suite, "Understand, I don't expect any company to support their products for free forever. But why not phase this policy in? Those of us who just bought the package in the belief we were getting free support ought to get a year's worth at least. This is just unfair."

          Some readers made it clear they were outraged because the retail package quite literally had been purchased for the support it provided. Technicians from companies with enough OEM Office licences to cover all their workstations had purchased a retail copy so as not to be dependent on the OEM's software support. This, of course, wasn't kosher by Microsoft's rules anyway, but from the customer's point of view they'd already paid a small premium for the support they wanted.

          From Microsoft's point of view, "This change actually reflects customer behaviour that is already in place," says Matt Fingerhut, Microsoft's director of support offerings. "We have seen a dramatic increase in online support usage, and our data shows that over 90% of our Office customers don't call for support more than twice. So we took this as an opportunity to invest our support resources in areas where our customers are telling us they want us to invest."

          So why didn't Microsoft phase in the new policy for recent purchasers? Fingerhut says they looked at several different approaches but decided to keep it simple.

          "We all have to have the latitude to adjust our policies, but we don't want to surprise anyone."

          He was disappointed the announcement didn't get more press coverage, but he says analysts and members of the press who were briefed didn't seem to think it was very newsworthy.

          "They felt it just brought us more in line with the rest of the industry," Fingerhut says. "Frankly, if you look at our policies in comparison to our competition, we're pretty good."

          Given what a rare bird unlimited free support has become, Fingerhut's comparison to other software publishers is certainly true. In fact, plenty of other software publishers don't even provide two free incidents, and many of them changed their policies in just as arbitrary a fashion as Microsoft did. So is it fair to single out Microsoft on this?

          Probably not. Microsoft is guilty of no sin here that hasn't already become standard practice in the software industry. Taking it a step further, it's also standard practice on the internet, because this is really just a variation on the sneakwrap practices we've seen most prominently with online service vendors.

          But it is fair to ask why software companies should be allowed to do this. As commonplace as it is in the technology sector to retroactively deprive a customer of features or performance that was part of the original bargain, it's virtually unknown in other industries. Our PowerPoint user made a powerful point when he talked about how we wouldn't let an automaker get away with this.

          Why is it acceptable for a high-tech business to "adjust our policies" whenever it feels like it, while other industries have to stick with the deal as it was originally presented to the customer? If you know, please write to gripe@infoworld.com and explain it to me.

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