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April 30, 2003

Symantec's dangerous gamble:

 Peter Norton - where are you?

by: Gary Bannerman

Chat rooms are erupting these days with complaints about Norton Anti-Virus 2004. Serious install problems are afflicting many PCs, and users are also complaining about an "activation" policy that goes overboard in its zeal to ensure that the package is only installed once, on one computer.

As a corporate communications consultant who regularly reminds clients that loyal customers are a priceless asset, inexpensive to pamper, while the acquisition of each new client is costly and time consuming, it astonishes me to see a major corporation abuse its clientele.

Anyone who struggled with the early chapters of the personal computer revolution, developed almost religious loyalty to the geniuses who made their lives easier: Bill Gates, Stephen Jobs and a few others. Central among these heroes was Peter Norton, whose magical creations untangled the hopeless lack of compatibility between different hardware and software products as well as making the operating systems of the day run faster and better.

Stephen Jobs and Apple appear to have retained the passionate loyalty of their audience and consumer markets. Perhaps it has been easier to be consumer-friendly within a lock-in niche market, as opposed to the clone and counterfeit-afflicted PC world.

But contrast that with Microsoft. This firm's predatory and monopolistic practices, and software designed to trap and exploit every consumer, has trashed the reputation of Bill Gates, irrespective of how many millions he donates to charity.

Let's see what happens now to the image of Peter Norton, who likely has little or no say, regardless of whatever horrors Symantec performs in his name. Such is the business of selling intellectual properties, including personal names.

And that's the segue . . . . how do software manufacturers protect the value of what they have created? Mass copying of software CDs is effortless these days, a high percentage of customers have multiple computers, if not solely for their own use, then certainly among family, friends and close associates. Everyone has been afflicted by the spam of software counterfeiters, selling software at ridiculously low prices.

The software producers - particularly those like Symantec with a prestigious stable of pedigreed technology - can proudly travel the moral high road and seek the support of customers, government and society itself. They deserve help in educating the masses about the wisdom of licensing and registering the pattern of usage - as long as the customer is informed!

Warnings need to be on the box: ONE COMPUTER ONLY. ATTEMPTS TO REINSTALL WILL BE BLOCKED. (Note that Symantec's phrase "one user" is deceitful, misleading and likely actionable). It might further explain the complicated procedure necessary to get approval to reinstall in the event of the seemingly inevitable re-install after reformatting hard drives or upgrading hardware.

* * *

Back to the current story, Norton Anti-Virus 2004.

Apparently, whatever they put in the water at Symantec these days assumes that PC users will politely e-mail tech support to obtain special coding to permit a reinstall. The fact that their install might compromise the computer's facility to the point where even e-mail is impossible seems to have been ignored. It must come as a genuine shock to see the explosion of anger in the chat rooms, and the feedback tidal wave that is coming from resellers.

On a personal note, it is refreshing in business to find problems with such easy solutions. My NAV2004 misadventure has come on the heels of several recent good experiences with McAfee software, now under the management of the revamped Network Solutions world. And, as can be noted elsewhere in this web site, our firm is not without expertise in computer technology. I consulted our resident guru, Richard Pitt, who reported the good experience of an associate David Ingram, in his business, with GRISOFT, anti-viral programming created in the Czech Republic (www.grisoft.com). A trial version is available free. We will try that in one computer and see where it leads.

Grisoft also has commercial products and we will likely license some of them based on the good performance of their free products. This is the new reality of the connected Internet; create and offer a functional product and make money by selling either a better support infrastructure or a version that has increased functionality - expecting that customers will support you by purchase because they know your product does what they need. We note a similar reality from Red Hat for their Linux products and online support products we use to keep our server systems up to date.

Software manufacturers are going to have to find a compromise. What benefits can they build in to keep people loyal, yet protect themselves against unreasonable unlicensed usage? Do they assume that its better for them if thieves steal their products, as opposed to those of others'? Do they build loyalty and accept a (slightly) lower revenue stream by encouraging (or turning a blind eye to) use of their products on all the systems in a home or small office? At what point does the time and effort spent locking down their product decrease their market share due to the exasperation of the typical customer/user in their typical use? Possibly purchasers of new software could be permitted multiple installs for small additional increments, just as future year subscriptions come at beneficial prices.

In any case, I suspect the PC world will be entertained by the tsunami now charging toward Symantec Corporation, and the pathetic attempts at damage control that are sure to follow.

The "install" difficulties are certain to require software updates. The "tech support" solutions we've been advised to follow require arduous work, including the complete removal of all Symantec products (possibly a Freudian suggestion?); clean boots and similar drastic measures. Even then, the install may not work.

During the course of these cumbersome and time-consuming processes, I responded to tech support: "I have a much simpler idea... install McAfee."

* * *

I began by commenting upon how expensive it is to develop a new customer, particularly a loyal one. Those who feel abused and cheated are time bombs.

Fueled by both respect and gratitude for more than 20 years, Norton software has been our preferred choice whenever appropriate to the situation. Everyone associated with this business is a marathoner, and not fickle. We've liked Norton and stuck with it, but we also have spent far more time in this particular exercise than the software or the problems it might have resolved are worth. The inertia against change has been overcome and we've changed; forced by both poor product and poor response to the problems.

This feels like a "farewell" to an old friend. I hope someone, somewhere, pins down Peter Norton for whatever comment his contract with Symantec permits.

-30-

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