Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Silent death

Published on 14-Jan-2001, at "TheMarker.com" (a business and technology Israeli site).
Translated from Hebrew by "TheMarker.com".

You know that creepy feeling that something’s wrong? The question is whether we listen to our gut feeling, or repress it. Sometimes the sorry truth is that we pick what experience indicates to be a peach, but it turns out to be a lemon.

Lend an ear, dear reader. I have a sad and sorry tale to tell.

Our company decided to buy a dial remote access server. Based on the stellar reputations of Intel and of its Bedford, Mass.-based subsidiary Shiva, now Intel Network Systems, we opted for one of their products. We had very high expectations of a product made by such an industry leader, under Intel’s wing no less.

We bought the product in early December 2000. While installing and learning to use it, several snags arose.

The first alarm bell: The product came packaged with two power cables. My gain? No. They were both adapted to the European power grid, not the Israeli one. Okay, I said, power cables are a dime a dozen. I scrabbled about and found one. Problem overcome.

The second alarm bell: The installation CD was not a complete product guide. It was a few hastily-assembled files and a short explanation for beginners, no more. Aha, a challenge. Okay, I said, we have experience. We’ll learn as we go along. Problem overcome.

The third alarm bell: The product management software installed from the CD couldn’t find the product on the network in order to attribute it with preliminary definitions (mainly, IP address). Nothing I did worked. Lacking alternatives, I dived into the support site and found a program that had not been provided on the CD, but could be downloaded from the site. So I downloaded it. It did the job, too, enabling me to define the device. Okay, I said, they forgot to copy it onto the CD. Problem overcome.

But I was irked. At this stage, I rang the distributor’s product manager and complained. She was sympathetic, said it was good I had told her, and promised to look into the matter.

The fourth alarm bell: I contentedly went back to work and noticed that the software downloaded from the site enabled me to set more advanced definitions for the product. I did so and began to try out the product.

Situations supposed to arise using the advanced definitions did not arise. I went back to the definitions and noticed they were gone. After going back and forth a few times, I tried to return to the original software on the CD. Abracadabra! Changes effected using this software were retained and ran the product properly.

When a manufacturer provides two distinct software programs designed to change the same definitions of the same product, it’s asking for trouble. Indeed, trouble arose.

But okay, we overcame.

The fifth (and final) alarm bell:
I installed the client dialing software in a test computer and unleashed it to track down the product. Nada.

I tried everything, really I did. Nothing doing. Back at the support site, after laborious searching, I found that one of the security definitions has to be “open” for the client software to find the product. I, fool that I am, had automatically locked it. Changing the definition to open solved that one.

But when I went to the home page of the supplier’s site, I was shocked by a headline in bright red: Important Announcement. The text read: “Effective January 4, 2001, Intel announced the discontinuation of all dial remote access products”. Intel is continuing only with virtual private networks.

They killed the product I had just bought.

Not okay, I said. Don’t think I can overcome.

Always the last to know: The Client
I made a panicky phone call to the product manager. “Howzit?” she chirped.

“Not good,” I gibbered through my tears.

“What’s wrong?" she cooed.

“The word discontinued mean anything to you?” I asked.

“Ah yes, we’re in shock over here too,” she said, properly shocked.

I said I wanted to return the product and get our money back. That we didn’t want to get stuck with a product that wouldn’t have parts, upgrades or support. Especially given that the manufacturer knew perfectly well that the product was about to be discontinued but sold it anyway, without warning the buyer. We bought it only a month before it was killed, a fact we learned of by coincidence. Not nice.

She was sympathetic, said it was good I had told her, and promised to look into the matter.

The manufacturer refused to acknowledge parentage of the sorry mess. A sales rep at Intel Israel called. First he inquired whether I had handled the procurement properly (i.e. bought the product willingly and knowingly) and whether I was satisfied with my procedure. He tried every trick to prove that I knowingly and willingly shot myself in the foot. I cut him off politely and repeated what I’d told the product manager, augmented by a few choice adjectives about Intel.

Foxed, the Intel Israel rep promised to talk with the Intel product manager. A few days later, he wrote that Intel refused to take the product back. He sent the details of the global Intel product manager.

I emailed the global Intel product manager, who apparently never had been briefed by Intel Israel. He fired back a concise email that no conversation will taken place between us, that Intel wouldn’t take the product back and that we had to settle for the company's support policy.

Post mortem
Sure, a company can discontinue a product line whenever it wants. Cases like ours have happened before and will happen again, at perfectly “respectable” companies. Intel is not alone. But it shouldn’t happen at the expense of faithful customers.

When a product is launched, Marcom comes out slugging. PR, advertising, press announcements. But when a product is killed, nothing. Silence. The fatal injection is given in the dead of night, in the depths of the support department. No wake. The obit will be as laconic as possible.

Intel killed its remote access server too soon, I believe. Email was supposed to kill the fax. It didn’t. Sure, VPNs will become more popular. But there’s plenty of room and demand for RAS systems, mainly in the same dialing area, especially because of security issues. Even the first product manager I talked with said that if anything, demand is increasing (but one should be careful of relying on the veracity of a salesperson).

Shiva built its good name on RASs, the parent of the firewall and the VPN. It’s good in VPN too, but not the market pioneer or leader.

In my email to the global product manager, I proposed that the discontinuation process will be more gradual and prolonged, for the good of all. The company can say a year in advance that it’s discontinuing a product. During that year, it will sell the item at a discount. Instead of sudden death, a quiet slide into the void. It will also get rid of its inventory.

Clients who bought the thing should be able to get support and parts for a longer period of time. New buyers should be advised that they’re getting a discount because of the imminent discontinuation. End of season sort of thing.

By the way, the company’s site still sells the products that died on January 4, 2001.

Conclusions? Nothing of worth, sorry. Life is cruel. There’s no life after death in hi-tech. Big companies can behave like horse-traders when their cash-flow dwindles to a trickle. All that remains is for frustrated buyers to carry out their own brand of discontinuation, of the company's products.


Post a Comment

<< Home