Monday 13 October 2014

Small suppliers picking up the tab for support

I've been having some thoughts about how the support load is distributed between large suppliers such as Microsoft, Apple and Google vs. smaller suppliers such as ourselves.

It seems that people buy in services from big providers, but when problems hit they can't get the necessary level of support from them, so turn to the smaller providers with whom they have a not-entirely-related support contract.

This happens to us all the time - we have all manor of kludges in our software to make Apple devices work reliably with it due to bugs in Apple's software, for example.  In an ideal world, the customer would call Apple and Apple would diagnose the problem (possibly with our help) and fix their software.  In a less than ideal world, we would do a temporary work-around to get our customers up and running, then report these bugs to Apple who would fix them.  Back in the real world, Apple never fix the bugs and the work-arounds become permanent bodges that are an ongoing minefield for us.

We used to report all the Apple bugs we found to Apple with the expectation that they would be interested in fixing them.  These days we don't bother - they have never shown any interest in fixing a bug we've reported.  Usually reporting went like this: after spending hours diagnosing a problem, we send them a comprehensive report of what's happening, how to reproduce it, often with network traffic dumps clearly showing the problem.  They respond asking for exactly the same information as we just provided, but in a different format.  So we spend hours reproducing the problem again, send them everything they asked for and never hear anything back.  I've got no problem with spending some time collecting information for them if they are actually going to use it, but it's a complete waste of our time to do debugging that they will ignore every time.

We're currently having problems with Microsoft's web servers - they have a bug in them that means certain clients can't connect (pretty much anything using OpenSSL on Scientific Linux 6.5).  In particular, our proxy server software can't connect without some work-arounds.  There is no well publicised address for reporting bugs, but we found a promising looking address and sent a comprehensive bug report.  We even prefaced the report with a "if this is the wrong address, please forward it on to the right department" note.  Instead, we have simply been bounced from department to department, many refusing to hand out email addresses and instead insisting on us phoning - the phone operators are completely ill-equipped to handle this kind of bug report and inevitably bounce us on to another department.

So much like Apple, Microsoft seem disinterested in actually looking at bug reports.  Limited experience of dealing with Google is much the same - they are just too big to be interested in resolving problems that don't affect hundreds of thousands of customers.

So we're back to my initial thoughts - customers buy expensive products from the big guys, who pocket the profits and refuse to support them properly.  Leaving us to have to pick up the pieces despite it not really being part of our remit, because telling a customer "we're not going to help you" isn't really an option for us.  Yet somehow, when we are unable to work around the problems it is somehow seen as our fault and reflects badly on us - no one ever stops buying from the big guys because of this stuff.

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