by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, January 1997

In the last column I described the circumstances of my forcible awakening to the potential hazards of vertical-market software. If you thought that politicians or used-car salespeople were the leaders in unethical behavior, you haven’t had to work with the industry-specific programs, commonly known as vertical market software.

My most recent encounter with a vertical-market software company is a good example. A client already owned and depended on several products from this company and was in need of a payroll module. They were interested in this company’s payroll module because the existing software from this company was totally proprietary, so that its payroll module was the only product which could communicate with my client’s current system. Since I had interceded on behalf of my client with this software company on previous occasions where their existing software failed, I was not thrilled at the prospect of my client buying something as critical as payroll from them.

They had been unresponsive, and sometimes downright abusive toward my client. Their products had been written for a Unix environment and had been ported directly to a PC/LAN environment by the simple expedient of being run through a translating program. They had only Unix-oriented people on staff. Nobody in their company had any experience with LANs - they didn’t even own one - and only a few had very light experience with standalone PCs. The software company also made it clear that their software would never be rewritten to run on that newfangled Microsoft Windows environment, since they seemed to think that Windows and its descendants are just passing fads. (Real men don’t eat quiche - and obviously don’t use graphical user interfaces, either.)

They repeatedly berated my client for being stupid enough to use "slow and inefficient" PCs and a LAN instead of their precious Unix. (Note that they didn’t actually use the word "stupid", but the implication was very strong.) They made it very clear that it was my client’s privilege to use their software and that they shouldn’t complain about the lack of support, programming bugs, or poor performance because of their choice of a PC/LAN system over a Unix system.

In a call to this vertical-market software company I asked them about their payroll software, I asked them how they expected to support their products on LAN systems without any LAN experience or even an in-house LAN for testing. They stated that they had no intention of providing any such support! (Reader Alert: If you see nothing wrong with the previous sentence, please stop reading right now, go to the nearest college and take a course entitled "The Philosophy of Ethics" or the closest equivalent class that you can find. I got a lot out of it when I took it. After taking this course, you may resume reading.)

I was taken aback. It took me a few seconds to formulate a polite (that is, non-obscene) way of asking exactly how my client was going to obtain support. Their response was that they would refer PC or LAN related questions to the company that wrote the computer language that they used to write their software. Huh???

Since the beginning of the computer industry, when you buy a computer language and write software in it, the computer language company has no responsibility for directly supporting your customers. If, for example, I write a program in Microsoft’s Visual Basic, sell it to someone, and that person calls Microsoft for support, Microsoft will refer them back to me, because I am the developer.

I asked the software company if they could provide evidence of a special contact that they had with the language company in which the language company agreed to override common practice and provide direct support to my customer. They told me that they didn’t need one.

After they repeatedly stated that they saw no ethical compromise in selling a PC/LAN-based product that they had never tested (since they didn’t own a LAN), I had to terminate the call. I just couldn’t hold off telling them my opinion of their methods any longer (nor can I print that opinion in this publication), and I felt that doing so would jeopardize my client’s ability to keep getting what little support was available from this software company.

In case you hadn’t already guessed, the software company also charged outrageous amounts for additional reports and frequently charged for bug fixes. They use the local (that is workstation-based) version of Novell’s Btrieve database, instead of the much faster and safer server version. Since they don’t know anything about LANs, they obviously have no idea of the advantages of client-server databases. They merely ran the translation program from Unix to PC, printed some inadequate documentation, and shipped the product out the door. They wouldn’t want to break their pattern of screwing their customers.

Next month, in the last of this series (finally!), I will cover the hows and whys (and in many cases, why nots) of selecting vertical-market software.

�1997, Wayne M. Krakau