Drawing the line with Y2K policies

How far back should vendors be expected to go in fixing year-2000 problems for users of their older products? When should the customer expect that fix to be free, and when is it fair for the vendor to charge for the upgrade?

Drawing that dividing line is going to be harder than I thought, and I never expected it to be particularly easy. Since my last column on this subject, readers have reported encountering a remarkable array of year-2000 upgrade policies. The one thing that the situations I've looked into so far have in common is that they are discouragingly complex to sort out in terms of what's fair and foul.

In the coming weeks we will be looking at a few of those cases to see if they can help us draw the year-2000 foul line a little straighter. To start with, though, I'd like to look at a case where I believe the vendor is safely in fair territory, in part because I was inadvertently responsible for perhaps giving some the opposite impression.

One of the first year-2000 issues I heard about involved Novell, with complaints coming from users of NetWare 4.10 and NetWare 3.11. At the time, Novell had posted free year-2000 patches for the two more current versions of NetWare -- 4.11 and 3.12 -- on its Web site, but customers with 4.10, 3.11, or earlier were told they would need to upgrade to ensure year-2000 compliance. Those customers weren't happy with the prospect of forking out a substantial hunk of change for an upgrade they had managed to live without so far.

My original plan was to include the NetWare gripes in that first column about year-2000 upgrades, but I began to have my doubts as I compared it with some of the other cases I was investigating. It seemed borderline: Novell had resisted the undoubted temptation to force even 3.12 customers to NetWare 4 or 5. And Novell was crystal clear on its Web page about what year-2000 fixes it was and was not providing for all its products. Because a big part of the problem in other cases was the difficulty readers had in getting straight answers about year-2000 fixes and testing, I decided that Novell didn't belong in that column.

Unfortunately, when I had that last-minute change of heart, I forgot to tell InfoWorld's design department, and because of my earlier plan, it turned out that the word "Novell" was in the illustration for that column. Whoops. My mistake, and I apologise to Novell and to any readers who got the wrong impression, even subliminally.

But because we're talking about where one draws the line between good and bad year-2000 practices, it's worth discussing why I no longer think Novell is even a borderline case. As the company recently indicated on its Web page, it has had its own change of heart regarding NetWare 4.10 and now plans to have a free year-2000 patch available for download later this year.

"You understand our first priority, of course, was to test everything that is on our price list, and having gotten that out of the way, we've begun looking at the products in our installed base as the testing resources become available," says John Slitz, senior vice president of marketing at Novell in the US. "What was communicated [previously about 4.10] was that we're not going to do this, when what should have been communicated was that we don't know whether we can get to it or not."

Slitz would say nothing specifically about a year-2000 patch for NetWare 3.11, but he made it clear the company is still looking at what fixes are possible for older products: "Of course, as you go further back, the ability to fix a lot of these problems becomes more difficult. We want to continue to do what we can, but we have no timetable and no idea how broke some of it is or how fixable it is."

I know NetWare 3.11 users would like to hear more than that, but I'm at least convinced that Novell is going to do what it reasonably can. Next time we'll look at some more dubious situations.

(Ed Foster has been writing about technology and consumer issues for nearly 20 years. Send him gripes about computer companies and products at gripe@infoworld.com)

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