I admit that I didn’t read the whole article but then I really didn’t have to. I knew what Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com was trying to start. I remember many years ago seeing Marc at an industry conference where he proudly announced the end of software. A nice marketing approach that definitely got everyone’s attention. Of course, at that time Marc was working on a little software as a service enviornment that became Salesforce.com. The rest is history, as we like to say. Now, Marc is on a new mission to attack maintenance fees. While it is clear that Marc is trying to tweak the traditional software market I think that he is bringing up an interesting subject.
Software maintenance is not a simple topic to cover and I am sure that I could spend hundreds of pages discussing the topic because there are so many angles. Maintenance fees began as a way of ensuring that software companies had the revenue to fund development of new functionality in their software products. It is, of course, possible to buy software, pay once, and never pay the vendor anything else. Those situations exist of course. Ironically, the better designed the software, the less likely it is that customers will need upgrades. But, clearly that circumstance is rare.
There are major changes taking place in the economics of software. Customers are increasingly unhappy with paying huge yearly maintenance fees to software providers. Some of these fees are clearly justified. Software is complex and vendors are often required to continue to upgrade, add new features, and the like. There are other situations where customers are perfectly happy with software as is and only want to fix critical problems and don’t want to pay what they see as exorbitant maintenance fees.
Now, getting back to Marc Benioff’s comments about the end of maintenance. Here is a link from Vinnie Mirchandani’s recent blog on the topic.Marc is making a very important observation. As the world slowly moves to cloud computing for economic reasons there will be a major impact on how companies pay for software. Salesforce.com has indeed proven that companies are willing to trust their sales and customer data to a Software as a Service vendor. These customers are also willing to pay per user or per company yearly fees to rent software. Does this mean that they are no longer paying maintance fees? My answer would be no. It is all about accounting and economics. Clearly, Salesforce.com spends a lot of money adding functionality to its application and someone pays for that. So, what part of that monthly or yearly per user fee is allocated to maintaining the application? Who knows? And I am sure that it is not one of those statistics that Salesforce.com or any other Software as a Service or any Platform as a Service vendor is going to publish. Why? Because these companies don’t think of themselves as traditional software companies. They don’t expect that anyone will ever own a copy of their code.
The bottom line is that software will never be good enough to never need maintenance. Software vendors — whether they sell perpetual licenses or Software as a Service– will continue to charge for maintance. The reality is that the concrete idea of the maintenance fee will evolve over time. Customers will pay it but they probably won’t see it on their bills. Nevertheless, the impact on traditional software companies will be dramatic over time and a lot of these companies will have to rethink their strategies. Many software companies have become increasingly dependent on maintenance revenue to keep revenue growing. I think that Marc Benioff has started a conversation that will spark a debate that could have wide ranging implications for the future of not only maintenance but of what we think of as software.