The spectre of the year 2000 invokes many feelings among software users -- fear, anger and frustration are among the most common. It seems, however, to elicit a different response from software vendors -- in particular, evasiveness and greed.
Considering that it's been fairly well known for some time that the year 2000 will follow 1999, you might think software publishers would feel responsible for correcting year-2000 incompatibilities in their products. And many do, but that sense of responsibility generally extends only to the most recent version of the product. Customers of older versions, even ones purchased relatively recently, must upgrade.
An example of the year-2000 problem being treated as a marketing opportunity was experienced by a reader who recently received a phone call from Quarterdeck about the version of Procomm she is using.
"The call today was to let me know that Procomm, Version 4.0, is not year-2000 compliant and to offer to sell me a compliant version (4.5) at the 'manufacturer's special price of US$30'," the reader wrote. "I upgraded to Procomm 4.0 about 13 months ago. 'Excuse me,' I said, 'but why should I pay for a bug fix? Do you mean to tell me that last year you didn't know about the year-2000 problem?'"The salesperson, who did not mention any other features the upgrade provided, only responded that 4.0 is a 2-year-old version.
A representative for Quarterdeck confirmed that Procomm 4.0 users need to upgrade to 4.5 (or the just-released 4.7) for year-2000 compliance. However, I was also told that, for those who do not wish to get the other features of the upgrade, a disk with just the year-2000 patch is available for a $US9.95 shipping and handling charge. Neither the reader's salesperson, Quarterdeck's Web page, or Quarterdeck's customer service tells you about this offer.
"It's not public knowledge," the representative confirmed. "We do prefer to encourage people to upgrade to the latest version."
At least it's public knowledge now.
A common element of these year-2000 cases, both for readers and for me, is the difficulty in getting accurate information from the vendors. A system manager at an international consulting company was recently trying to get information on year-2000 compliance for Netscape's SuiteSpot 3.0. After searching the Netscape Web page in vain, and having his calls bounced from tech support to sales and back again, he finally heard from a sales representative who told him that only the latest version, SuiteSpot 3.5, will be year-2000 tested.
"The previous version (3.0) which had been shipping up until December '97, will not be tested," said the system manager. "I explained that corporate IS groups cautiously migrate to upgrades in light of the inherent bugs. ... He understood where I was coming from, yet the decision was made by their `QA' group not to test a 6-month-old product."
After first being told that the SuiteSpot 3.0 applications had been tested and found year-2000 compliant, I finally learned from Netscape that only the 3.5 versions have been tested vigorously enough to be certified.
"We found that there could be a lot of [year-2000] problems we hadn't anticipated -- protocols that were written 20 years ago, for example," said John Paul, senior vice-president for Netscape's server products division. "So certifying all those [3.5 applications] was a big expense for us." But Paul also seemed to understand where our reader was coming from in wanting to know if SuiteSpot 3.0 has year-2000 problems or not.
"That does sound like something we could do for customers, so we will seriously consider it," Paul said.
I have a few more cases I want to discuss, but they can keep. I suspect we're going to be talking about year-2000 upgrades for the next 18 months or so. By that point, perhaps even the software vendors will be exhibiting their own share of fear, anger and frustration.