A Question For All Of You - InformationWeek

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10/25/2005
04:59 AM
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A Question For All Of You

Let's say a car dealer sells you a new set of wheels. Then, let's say they send a mechanic to your house six months later who yanks out the stereo, replaces it with an AM radio and a coat-hangar antenna, and tells you it's an "upgrade." Most of us would call this behavior insane, stupid, suicidal, or all of the above. Yet here in the tech industry, we call it something else: a business model. Here's my question for all of you: Just how common is it?

Let's say a car dealer sells you a new set of wheels. Then, let's say they send a mechanic to your house six months later who yanks out the stereo, replaces it with an AM radio and a coat-hangar antenna, and tells you it's an "upgrade." Most of us would call this behavior insane, stupid, suicidal, or all of the above. Yet here in the tech industry, we call it something else: a business model. Here's my question for all of you: Just how common is it? Actually, I should expand upon the question a bit: When have tech companies stripped useful features from their own customers' installed products -- or tried to cripple third-party products on their customers' systems -- without their knowledge or approval? They might do it through a software update (which for some reason neglect to mention this "feature" when it offers to install itself), or they might simply tell users either to install the crippleware or have Bad Things happen to their now-unsupported products. Or maybe there's some other virtual pickpocketing technique involved here -- you get the idea.

I'm looking for cases besides the two best-known examples of less-is-more marketing: Apple Computer's brilliantly evil program to turn its iPod/iTunes platform into a high-tech Roach Motel ("geeks go in, but they don't come out"); and Tivo's cliffhanger attempt at suicide by crippleware, which prompted some of its most loyal customers (including me) to whistle the national anthem and sign off the service for good.

Are these two examples still relatively unique, or are they the tip of a slimy iceberg? I could probably ask Google for enlightenment, but there's a certain amount of subjectivity in this question. It would be useful to see where some of you draw the line: If a product sported a feature that no one except a few noisy cranks cared about, or if a feature pretty much sucked anyway and deserved the Ol' Yeller treatment, it really isn't in the same league as cases of vendors yanking useful, relevant, popular features out from under the feet of paying customers.

And no, I don't care whether the fine print in the User Agreement gives the company the right to do whatever it is they're doing. Telling someone that you reserve the right to sell them something and then take it back, one piece at a time, doesn't make it any less pathetic, especially when the only people who read those things are masochistic, unemployed attorneys who can't find anything to watch on TV.

Feel free to post examples here, but please also drop me a line: [email protected]. If there are other companies making you pay for the privilege of having your pocket picked, I'd like to give them the one thing every business loves to get: free publicity.

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