Subject: Re: fixing bugs....
From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <turnbull@sk.tsukuba.ac.jp>
Date: Fri, 31 Mar 2000 15:28:31 +0900 (JST)

>>>>> "Keith" == Keith Bostic <bostic@abyssinian.sleepycat.com> writes:

    Keith> Where the product is reasonably complex, or the customer
    Keith> reasonably naive, the bug-fixer has a practical monopoly,
    Keith> and the "fact" that the customer can fix their own bugs is
    Keith> largely an illusion.

In a world where chemically indistinguishable products (and by that I
mean to competent blind taste testers whose natively evolved technology
beats anything Dupont has come up with) suddenly become "fight rather
than switch" issues for many consumers upon addition of the proper
mixture of masticated wood, adhesive, and artificial coloring[1],
"practical monopolies" are the rule rather than the exception.

Still, the OECD economies are "workably competitive" by and large.
Doesn't prove anything in this particular case, of course, but
"special cases" are rarely so special as those participating in them
think they are (and then usually for different reasons :).

    Keith> Customers are rarely competent to fix their own bugs, and
    Keith> would rather pay someone to do it for them.  As it's less
    Keith> expensive to pay the company that wrote the software to fix
    Keith> it than to fix it yourself or hire outside help (because of
    Keith> start-up costs and the costs of re-integrating the fix on
    Keith> each new release), bugs can make money for a software
    Keith> company.

There are two reasons to suppose that this is a very bad business plan
for an FSB, though.  One is that this invites lower-cost or higher
quality rivals into the market (Russ's point).  The other is that in
practice it is probably not intentional, but rather correlated with
internal inefficiencies and general bad practice.

Eg, after going through the find-bug-and-pay-for-fix cycle once or
twice _some_ (not every) customer will either hire outside help or
decide to fix the bugs themselves and go into business supporting the
software.  Eg, knowing nothing about the history of Russ's business
and taking his statement that qmail is bug-free at face value, I'm
willing to bet that Russ learned about qmail first for his own
purposes (ie, was a customer trying to avoid some of the infelicities
of sendmail), and _then_ decided to go into the business of support.
Not deciding to support mail installations in rivalry with Sendmail,
and then choosing qmail as his vehicle.

As for the second issue, it's hard to imagine that a company that
can't design and build a product well will actually be able to fix it
well enough to keep out smarter competition with free access to
underlying technology.  You need to keep a monopoly on the source code
to make that approach work.  But that's by definition not FSB.

    Keith> To be fair, this whole argument is based on money being
    Keith> easier to find than engineering time, but I believe that's
    Keith> the case for most of the industry.

I think that presumption is amply supported by experience across the
economy and for hundreds of years.  After all, it's the principle that
the market economy is founded on.

    Keith> It's also based on the belief that few companies will throw
    Keith> out an approach that "almost" works, because they think
    Keith> there's just a few more bugs to clean up, and so they end
    Keith> up with a recurring support cost instead of ignoring their
    Keith> sunk cost and re-evaluating the problem.

But if the software is free, there's a good chance that they will get
their asses saved for a much lower cost in the not-too-distant future
by one of the few companies that decided to throw out the approach
that "almost" works in favor of one that really works, a la (my story
about) Crynwr.

The point of the capitalist (as opposed to the market) economy is that
whenever an approach dominates a segment in cost or quality terms, it
will attract resources and come to dominate that segment in market
share as well.

    Keith> Finally, well, OK, but remember, you brought the subject
    Keith> up, I didn't.  One of our sales guys sent around the
    Keith> following email last month:

    Keith>     From: XXX YYY <ZZZ@harvard.edu>
    Keith>     Subject: Re: Berkeley DB support

    Keith>     I am sorry to say that we have decided not to purchase
    Keith> a support contract for your Berkeley DB software.  It was
    Keith> thought to be too expensive for a product that works so
    Keith> well.

I don't get the point.  Are you hinting that you're planning to leave
the Berkeley DB business because your support revenues are too low or
something?  Seems to me that the fact that AFAIK you are quite happy
with your business is strong evidence in favor of Russ's position.

Or maybe I'm really not getting your point:  is it simply that some
companies will provide crummy products out of incompetence and limp
along on the support revenues contributed by incompetent clients?  But
that's an old, old story:  _Caveat emptor!_.  Can't do much about
emptors who won't caveat, though.

An oldie but goodie:

	  Excellence - or, what the hell are you doing here?

 If you don't do it excellently, don't do it at all.  Because if it's
 not excellent it won't be profitable or fun, and if you're not in
 business for fun or profit, what the hell are you doing here?

	     Robert Townsend, _Up the Organization_, 1970


Footnotes: 
[1]  Labels.

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