Saturday, March 10, 2012

Software Upgrades and The Parable of the Windows

A librarian friend of mine recently expressed some surprise at the fact that a library system would spend almost $140,000 to upgrade their ILS software, when the vendor is known to be hostile to its customers and not actually very good with new development on their products. The short answer is that it's easier to upgrade than to think. Especially when an "upgrade" will be seen as easier than a "migration" to a different vendor's system (note: open ILS platforms like Evergreen and Koha may be read as being different vendors for the sake of convenience). In fact, when an ILS vendor discontinues support for a product and tells its customers that they have to migrate to another product if they want to continue to purchase support, it is the rare library that will take this opportunity to re-examine all its options and decide to migrate to a different vendor's product.

A simple demonstration of this thinking, on a scale that most of us can imagine, is what happened when my partner and I decided that it was time to replace the windows in our house several years ago. There are a couple of things you need to know about replacing the windows in your house, if you've never done this before:

  1. Most normal folks replace the windows in their house over the course of several years, doing two or three windows every year or two. If one is replacing the huge bay window in the living room, then that might be the only window that one does that year. Windows are expensive enough that one can't really afford to do them all at once.
  2. Windows are fungible. For the most part, one company's windows look exactly like another company's. Unless you're working hard at getting a particular colour of flashing on the outside of the window, nobody looking at your house from the sidewalk would notice that the master bedroom window and the livingroom window were made by different companies.

Like any responsible homeowners, we called several local window places, got quotations from three or four of them for the windows we wanted replaced that year, made our decision about which vendor we were going to use for the first round of window replacements, and placed an order. A month or so later, on a day that the weather was going to be good, a crew from the company arrived, knocked big holes in the front of our house to take out the old windows and install the new ones.

A couple of years went by, and we decided it was time to do the next couple of windows, so my partner, who was always far more organized about this sort of thing that me, called three or four window companies and asked them to come out to get quotations for the work.

At least one of the vendors declined, and another vendor did come out and give us a quote but he was very surprised that we were going through this process again, because normally, once a householder has gone through the process once, they tend to use the same window company for all the windows, even if several years have passed, or if the type of work is very different from the earlier work (such as replacing the living room bay window after a couple of rounds of replacing bedroom windows).

In general, once a decision has been made, people tend to stick with that plan. I think it's a matter of, "Well, I made this decision last year, and at the time, this company was good, so they're probably still good," combined, perhaps, with a bit of thinking that changing vendors in mid-stream implies that I didn't make a good decision earlier.

And there is, of course, always the thought that it's better to stick with the devil you know that the one you don't.