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Upgrades Done Right: Vendors Should Learn From SaaS

Make upgrades valuable and easy. SaaS and mobile device vendors get it--why don't more tech vendors learn the lesson?
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One of the big benefits software-as-a-service providers like to lord over the on-premises apps is that once a new feature is added, it simply becomes available for all users, free of charge. No more testing to see what the upgrade breaks, no concerns about price changes. Lessons learned: make it easy, make it cheap, give it to everyone at the same time, do it without much fanfare. And, it goes without saying perhaps, but actually make the technology better. Now if only the rest of the industry would catch on.

The mobile platform companies get it. They push new mobile OS releases, alert end users in a variety of ways, and the upgrade is almost as easy as just saying "yes." HP, for example, is pushing an upgrade to WebOS for its new TouchPad tablet over the air. This upgrade improves TouchPad performance, HP claims, and fixes a host of other issues that early end users and testers had, as Eric Zeman reports.

Unfortunately, not everything can be so easy. After all, many tablet makers also produce a mobile OS, so there's already a model for monetizing a better platform. Surely, Apple won't charge users for iOS 5 when it comes out, although Apple does charge more for an upgrade of its desktop OS.

Legacy upgrade models live on.

VMWare created quite a stir with pricing changes it introduced in VSphere 5, namely around the upper limits of memory usage, a factor seemingly modified to help the company extract more revenue from its bigger customers, but serving more to infuriate them and spur some of them to consider other offerings. In the consumer world, the darlings at Netflix also announced a price change, upping fees for those who wish to both get movies in the mail and stream them over the Internet. Now, AT&T comes along to deliver on a promise it's been making for some time now: throttling the performance of unlimited plan customers above certain thresholds of bandwidth usage.

At least the VMWare changes come with an upgrade. It's not as if Netflix promised a better streaming movie selection or to speed up the U.S. Postal Service. It's not as if AT&T added an option for unlimited plan users to also get guaranteed bandwidth levels for an extra cost--or promised to wash the cars of every T-Mobile subscriber if that merger goes through. Not that any of these changes would make the price hikes palatable, but they would be that spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

Enough about upgrades. Sometimes it just makes sense to make something better. Much has been written in the past few days about Adobe's new HTML5 development tool, Edge, especially that its launch means that Adobe is hedging its bets in the midst of its ongoing battle with Apple over Flash. But InformationWeek's Robert Strohmeyer argues that it's simply another development tool in Adobe's arsenal.

Meanwhile, InformationWeek's Doug Henschen writes about Oracle's Financial Services Data Warehouse, positing that this new software could be a key tool for financial institutions that have to quickly figure out the impact of market trends--like a looming debt crisis. This is another aspect in Oracle's desire to create best-of-breed applications, and to serve its core vertical markets. Oracle President Mark Hurd told me last week that his boss, Larry Ellison, is quite focused on increasing the performance of Oracle applications by multiple factors.

A final word about change: Sometimes, it turns out, better isn't always what it's cracked up to be. The folks over at Mozilla, performing much of their work out in the open, have been showing some new changes they'd like to make to the Firefox browser. Some of these changes appear designed for a touch interface, while others are meant to streamline and clean up the browser experience. The trouble is, many users think Firefox is fine as it is. That is a familiar refrain.

Yet, despite the backlash, Mozilla's efforts, even if they amount to little, are worthwhile. The debate is worthwhile. As applications become more web-like, or, with tools like Adobe's Edge, operate completely on the web, traversing the desktop and mobile platforms, on big screens and small, the battle for browser supremacy will matter more and more.

You see, there are many paths to "better." Some lead to more successful places than others, and those are usually the ones that follow what the customers need.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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