Tuesday, March 10, 2015

An Open Letter to Theme and Plugin Developers: Why I Can't Buy Your Products Any Longer

[THIS IS ACTUALLY A "PUBLIC" DRAFT. IN MID-APRIL AFTER RETURNING FROM EUROPE I PLAN TO SHORTEN IT AND "POLISH" THIS FOR PUBLICATION IN SEVERAL MEDIA.]

Web designers like myself rely on our theme and plugin vendors (like you) who have many excellent products I want to buy, and in the past I did buy them, many of them, and would continue to. 

But now I can't.

Many of you rely on web designers for a large portion of your revenue base.

If I can't buy from you, how are you going to remain in business?

Up to about eighteen months ago premium (i.e. paid for, not free) WordPress additions (themes and plugins) were sold with a one-time fee perpetual license for updates and support. 

But today, a large number of products are no longer sold, they are rented and buyers have to pay a yearly 'update' fee, often the same amount as the first purchase.

Some vendors give us unlimited use but require a yearly fee for updates. 

But there are others that restrict us to using the product on one site and requires a yearly update fee for each install. 

This just does not work for us!

In the past, our web design company (NewMediaWebsiteDesign.com) as well as others would buy lots of premium themes and plugins. But we can't do that anymore. We can't take what could become a large financial liability for many dozens of yearly rental (ransom) payments.

Yes, it might be possible for us to buy a license for our clients and put the yearly payments on their backs, but not only is that an administrative hassle on the front-end of the sale, clients don't want to be 'captive' to vendors anymore than we do.

While some vendors offer a 'developer' license, it is usually fairly expensive... and we especially don't want to pay you for that when we are not sure that your product will be continued or that we will continue to use it should better solutions present themselves in the market... or that your company will even be around next year!

Here are the four dirty little secret fears that web design shops don't tell you:

Our  FIRST biggest fear is that we believe theme and plugin developers will put version-checking code into their products such that when WordPress updates to a new version, the theme or plugin will not work until the site owner pays the ransom for an "upgrade."

The SECOND biggest fear is that the vendor will "cable-TV" us with a low teaser first-time license fee and then double it or triple it (or worse) at license renewal time. 

The THIRD biggest fear (a corollary of the first)  is that vendors will eventually put in code that if the license is not renewed the product stops working... and the famous 'white screen of death' is the result. 

And the FOURTH biggest fear is that developers will put out updates with features our clients have no need of... or worse... they take away features they like.... or the vendor doesn't upgrade anything... they just collect the fee. 

These would not be illegal events; there are no laws that I know of that require disclosure (especially from non-USA or non-EU vendors.)

Yes, perhaps market forces and community "awareness" would mitigate the above, but it hasn't done so with the cable-TV industry, cell-phone service providers, or the oil/gas sector. I have little faith in the so-called 'free market' anymore. 

We used to buy many themes and plugins for clients, especially from vendors who gave us unlimited use of the product as well as updates. But now the paradigm is shifting to one-payment, one-site, with a yearly payment requirement for updates. 

(Note, I'm not mentioning support here because I think that can and should be a separate issue... my bet is that good designers hardly ever require on-going email or phone support. I believe the consensus is that 20% of the buyers are the creators of 95% of the support tickets. Support could be charged on a fee-per-ticket basis, like Apple does.) 

So, while I like  the products of many developers, I can't put my company in the position of being held hostage by them, at least not while I have options.

Will I pay the yearly costs for Microsoft Office or the Adobe suite? Yes. Why? Because I have to... until Word files are not the de facto standard and until there is an alternative graphic suite, I'm trapped. 

But I have alternatives with WordPress... they may not the best alternatives, but the developer community has basically forced them on me and other small design shops. 

I now need to find cost-effective solutions with either open-source no-cost products or those that offer a license that has far less financial risk to our company and our clients. 

Please understand. I know that developers need a revenue stream to create new or better products. But I don't think the current paradigm of 'ransom-ware' is the answer, at least not in the long-term.

I think most design shops would like to see some changes.

The first and most important change and one which I think is mandatory is that vendors guarantee that their product will always be supported... that the version the customer buys will run (be supported or replaced) forever WITHOUT any yearly fees. However, if the customer wants support and/or upgrades to newer versions, they need to pay for them. 

This gives designers the peace of mind that the products they put on/in client sites are not going to 'die' with a WordPress update or on a non-renewal. Designers cannot live with the threat of becoming a hostage and having to pay what the underworld calls 'protection.'

Developers could also offer a license option of yearly renewals for support and updates for those customers who will always want the latest and greatest version. 

Perhaps developers could offer a multi-year license with a refund if the product is discontinued? (And we all know how many designers have bought an expensive 'developer license' only to see the product (or company) disappear (a month or year later.)

Let me say it again for emphasis. I used to buy many themes and even more plugins. I can't and won't do it if I'm going to be put at risk of being held hostage for a 'ransom' payment each year. 

I'm not even going to take a chance on products from most new companies. If I'm going to have to pay 'tribute' it will be to those companies who have been around for years and years and have a track record seeking feedback on what their customers would like to see in the next version, and then incorporating these' updates, instead of just 'fluff' code.

If you are a new vendor with a new theme or plugin and you come to me saying "Buy my product for $50 now and $50 a year thereafter" I'm simply not going to bother with you. 

And if you are an established vendor, you need to sell me on what your roadmap for the product is; that you are going to incorporate features that are worth the yearly update fee.

The days of design shops like mine buying hundreds of themes and plugins each year are over. 

I don't think that is good for us or the theme/plugin developer community. A good business 'deal' has to be 'win-win.' The new "pay us now AND pay us later" looks like a win for the developers, but I believe that except for a few very well-run companies, it will become a loss.