The Myth of Commercial Tech Support

by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

A guy on a mailing list wrote:
>I found a free engine for adding a discussion forum to our Web site
>[...] and it looks like just the ticket for what I want to
>do. [...] Unfortunately, because it is freeware (GNU Public
>License), there is no support available.

What bugs me is that assumed causal relationship - "because it is freeware there is no support available." In fact, the lack of support is probably not at all related to the fact that it's free software. Now I'm afraid I have to go off on a rant (not directed at you personally, of course) about the myth of technical support being available (let alone better) for commercial software.

I used to write docs professionally, but I develop software for a living now. Back when I wrote docs, I dealt with the tech support guys in-house a lot, and I even did a one-week stint working in tech support. I know those folks worked hard. Since making the switch to development, I've dealt a lot with the commercial software world from the other side. The idea that commercial software is supported is a myth. I've found that the support companies offer is often literally non-existent, or consists largely of:

"Yeah, you can't do that."

"Oh yeah, we know about that one, that's a known bug."

"Did you make sure it's plugged in? Okay, going to line 2 on my checklist..."

"Just let me jot this down and I'll research it and get back to you - now you said you're using this 'computer' thing to do what?"

I'll include one specific story here, though of course I can't identify the culprit or I'd get sued (or at least threatened :-). I was consulting for an Extremely Large Financial Institution that had paid a heck of a lot of money for a certain "platform". They had also paid $75,000 a year for "gold level support".

We were using their spiffy special proprietary "migration tool", e.g. dump out the database on one installation and reimport it on another. This proprietary tool used a proprietary "binary" format. The reason we were using this tool is that the vendor's salesgorts convinced some MBA that their platform would include supporting staging content from a development server, to a QA server, to the production server. As it turns out, their fix for staging was to run the export/import tool. Unfortunately, the damn thing was dying on import, with a cryptic message about an invalid value.

After a few days of spinning around and around, much of that dealing with the vendor's "award-winning support" (a phrase they used repeatedly), who were helpless, I finally cracked open the export file to sort it out myself. I figured out that the "binary file format" was just a renamed tar file of a directory structure containing several files, including an Oracle SQL*Loader file. The problem was that the export had translated a blank value to an empty value in a comma-delimited line, instead of translating it to the SQL value null.

I fixed this value, tarred it back up, re-ran the import, and presto, everything worked fine. I pulled the support request on the vendor's web site and reported the resolution, figuring at least I'd save somebody else the frustration. Also, by being helpful, I might gain some technical credibility with the support folks, and maybe the next time I had to call them we could skip past the "is it plugged in" stage.

The response was "Oh, that's a known bug."

Free software - which is by definition open source, although not all open source software is free, and certainly not all open source software is "free software" - may not be any better supported (witness this aspforums thing) but more often than not, it is.

Additionally, searching for resources for free software or open source software is a "broad and shallow" search across the internet. Commercial software, tends to require either winding your way through a maze of tech support menus, or a "narrow and deep" search in a private web site (cf. Oracle's technet, or Microsoft's knowledge base). Guess which domain has had countlessly more time and effort spent on developing good search tools?

Finally with the source available, somebody who knows programming can crack open the code and figure out what's going on if there's a bug in mission-critical software. This is not always a "last resort", either, sometimes it's the first thing I check! And while having to publish the source doesn't guarantee cleaner and more understandable code, it certainly encourages it.

By the way, if you're interested in finding some forum software for your site, I suggest you read up on the different options at:

See original (unformatted) article


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