The Gripe Line

SAN MATEO (05/23/2000) - It's an unfortunate fact of life that software companies often buy other software companies in order to kill off a competing product line. But what responsibility does the acquiring company have to inform the orphaned users of its plans?

Last July, Macromedia Inc. announced it would acquire Elemental Software and its Drumbeat Web development tool. Drumbeat users were somewhat concerned as Macromedia's own Dreamweaver product, although lacking the features of Drumbeat's eCommerce Edition, could be considered a competing product. But they were assured by published statements from Macromedia that "the Elemental products will continue to be sold and supported ... and will be key components of Macromedia's overall solution for creating dynamic Web applications" and that "the next generation of Drumbeat 2000 will contain a greater integration between Drumbeat and Macromedia's existing products."

On April 5, six months after Macromedia began selling Drumbeat 2000 under its own name, Macromedia announced that the product was being discontinued and that regular technical support for it will cease at the end of the year. In June the company expects to ship a new version of Dreamweaver, called Dreamweaver UltraDev, which also will be offered as an upgrade for Drumbeat users for $99.

UltraDev will incorporate some Drumbeat features as well as some Dreamweaver features that were on many Drumbeat users' wish lists, Macromedia officials say. But features of Drumbeat's eCommerce Edition, such as shopping cart capabilities, will not be included in the shipping version of UltraDev, although the company expects third-party "partners" to deliver extensions providing some e-commerce features in the future. Patches that customers assumed were in the works to fix Drumbeat's incapability of working with Windows 2000 will not be forthcoming from Macromedia.

Many longtime Drumbeat users felt they'd been sucker punched. "I have a number of e-commerce sites that I've built with this product," wrote one reader. "My business is based on it. Now I have the choice of staying with a product that doesn't work with Windows 2000 and won't be supported at all next year, or I can try to migrate to a product that hasn't shipped yet and won't even have the e-commerce features I need when it does."

Almost equally upset were recent Drumbeat customers, some of whom had not even realized that Drumbeat was not a Macromedia product all along. "I'm in a very awkward position," wrote one reader who bought Drumbeat a few weeks before the UltraDev announcement. "I have a lame-duck software I haven't learned yet, which has a very different interface and approach from UltraDev, as I understand from the discussion groups. What am I supposed to do [until UltraDev ships]? Waste my time learning lame-duck software, only to unlearn it and learn something new? We're a small company with finite time and resources for Web development. Macromedia has our money. What do we have?"

Why did Macromedia talk about a "next generation" of Drumbeat when they knew the product would be discontinued? Macromedia officials say they see no inconsistency.

"The 'next generation of Drumbeat' -- that can be interpreted several ways," says Julie Thompson, senior product manager at Dreamweaver UltraDev. "'Next generation' often contains a total metamorphosis. We never said 'next version' because we knew Drumbeat would have to change radically to provide features users wanted. We saw Drumbeat as a product that met a need for people who wanted to get e-commerce sites up quickly. They can still use that product if it meets their needs, or they can get the upgrade at a great price."

Macromedia has the right to make business decisions about what products to develop. And according to Thompson, who was at Elemental before the acquisition, Drumbeat was at such a technical dead end that it's possible there would have been no next version of the product even without Macromedia.

From the evidence I've seen, Macromedia knew from the beginning that it was going to kill Drumbeat. From the material Macromedia had posted on its Web site up to and even after April 5, it's clear the company was trying hard not to give that impression to Drumbeat customers. How fair is that?

How fair is it to leave Web site developers with a product that's incompatible with Windows 2000? How fair is it on Dec. 31 to drop tech support for what was a "key component" of your product line eight months ago? Macromedia has the right to make business decisions, but don't its customers have a right to make decisions based on honest information?

What rights should software customers have? One Drumbeat customer made a good start in answering that question. Look at his Software User's Bill of Rights at www.princeton.edu/~rcurtis/softrights.html and let me know your answer.

Got a complaint about how a vendor is treating you? Write to Ed Foster, InfoWorld's reader advocate, at gripe@infoworld.com.

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