Customer-to-tech-companies-Stop-abandoning-your-babies_SQIn the IT realm, there are few things more satisfying than finding a product – software or hardware – that truly fits your needs, at a price that’s right. And there are few things more aggravating than when, a few years down the line, the vendor abandons the product and leaves you in the lurch. I’m not talking about coming out with a new version that you don’t like as well as the old one; I’m referring to the announcement that the product is being “discontinued”, which is just a nice way of saying it’s being killed.

To the loyal customers who have grown to depend on it, this often appears to be a completely capricious act. A company pours time and effort and money into developing and marketing a product, has a nice following, and then one day someone decides to give it the axe. I’m sure there’s plenty of cost analysis and weighing of many factors that goes into these decisions from a business point of view, but is there a better way to handle the demise of a loved application or device than the way it’s usually done?  Here are some things vendors who are downsizing their product lines might want to consider.

My tax return lists my occupation as technology writer, but what I really do is create. I create content – these blog posts, longer articles and whitepapers, books – coherent and, I hope, interesting observations and information built from words. Some people create art from a blank canvas and paint, or buildings from bricks and mortar. Software developers create applications and operating systems out of pieced together instructions that can be processed by a computer.

As a writer, I feel as though my creations are my “babies”. That’s especially true of the ones that I work over for a long time. I would imagine it’s the same way for other creative people. Corporations, though, aren’t really people (despite some legal constructs that treat them as such in some circumstances). They have no maternal or paternal instincts. And the products they create are more like test-tube babies; they really belong to no one. Many different developers work on different parts and pieces and while they might be proud of their contributions, it’s not like the old days when one or two programmers slaved over a piece of software and owned the copyright and really felt it was their own.

Maybe that’s why the major tech vendors are so quick to drop a good product without a second thought. Microsoft left many customers frustrated when they announced in September of 2012 that they would be doing no more development on Forefront Threat Management Gateway (TMG) and that it would no longer be available for sale after December 1st of that year.  TMG was the last iteration of Microsoft’s network firewall software, which began life as Microsoft Proxy Server way back in January of 1997 and then gained a significant following after it morphed into Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server in 2000.

A thriving community grew around ISA/TMG, with an active group of Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs) dedicated to developing expertise in the product and promoting it to others.  A number of small software companies built their businesses on providing third-party add-ons for it, and other companies marketed hardware appliances based on it.  In 2009, ISA Server 2006 held a place in the top five software firewalls in market share. When my husband and I wrote Configuring ISA Server 2004, it became one of our best-selling books, reaching number 47 on Amazon.

At the time Microsoft announced TMG’s upcoming end of life, there were many, many companies – from small businesses to enterprises – that were dependent on the product for their firewall and proxy needs, and they felt a bit as if the rug were being pulled out from under them. IT pros started scrambling to find a replacement – which wasn’t as easy as it might seem, given ISA/TMG’s feature set, Windows interoperability and price point.

Some staunch supporters of the product line vowed not to give up their TMG firewall until it was pried from their cold, dead hands – or at least until extended support for TMG 2010 ends in 2020 (mainstream support ends next April). Two years after the product went off the market, there are still active web sites devoted to ISA/TMG. However, market share is dwindling; after all, who wants to get stuck with a firewall that has ceased development in a fast-paced tech world where the threats – and thus the feature sets of security products – are changing all the time?

I’ve used ISA/TMG as an example of what happens when a company abandons a product, but Microsoft is by no means the only company to do so. There is a long list of products and services that Google introduced and then discontinued, as lamented on The Google Graveyard web site, billed as “a resting place for great ideas.”  Remember Google Reader? Google Talk? Google Health? Google Buzz? Google Wave?

Then there are all the cloud storage services that have come and gone. Canonical shut down the Ubuntu One file service, Symantec discontinued Norton Zone, Dell announced end of life for PocketCloud.  It’s especially troubling when an online storage service fails, taking with it who knows how much customer data that hasn’t been backed up to other locations and is gone forever when the storage service shuts down.

Certainly it makes business sense for a company to shed products and services that aren’t profitable in favor of pursuing other avenues that bring in more revenue. They have an obligation to their shareholders to do so. But I wonder if those who make the final cuts carefully consider the impact on the company/customer relationship. Individuals and businesses alike become very dependent on particular applications and services. Finding a replacement is disruptive at best, and can be very costly.

Some companies seem to operate on the philosophy of “try everything, throw it all against the wall and see what sticks”. From their point of view, that shotgun approach might make sense.  For the companies, it’s a bottom line thing, but for the customers, it’s a matter of trust. Discontinuation of a trusted product feels like a betrayal, and there’s a good chance that customer will think twice before investing money and time in one of that company’s products again.