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vBulletin 4 upgrade offer grossly unfair

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Angry

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For many years I have been a long term user of phpBB for the various forum sites I manage.  It’s free, flexible and has a dedicated community providing free modifications and themes.  Over the course of my time using phpBB there have been a number of frustrating times – the biggest being the 5 years it took the development team to create and release version phpBB 3!  Complaining about it isn’t fair thought since it is free!  With this in mind and a little bit of eagerness to broaden my horizons, for my latest redesign project, I decided to lay out some cash and lease a vBulletin licence.

vBulletin version 3 has been out for a reasonable period of time.  There have been various incremental releases and at the time of writing, they are on version 3.8.4.  For the forum product there are two possible licence options:

  1. Lease a licence for 12 months. Download and install the software, but when the licence expires, you can either renew or remove the software from your site.
  2. Buy a licence outright. Receive updates and limited support for the product over a period of 12 months, but continue to use the product as long as you like.

Option 1 is cheaper in the short term and option 2 cheaper in the long term, especially if you don’t plan on using their support services and/or upgrading your site code (which in my opinion is asking to be hacked!)  I went for option 1, paid my monies, downloaded the product and set about building and customising my new site.  I’m very happy with the way the back-end works and in many senses it’s a lot better than phpBB.  In others, it’s a weaker product but then I might be saying that because I’ve 8 years experience of phpBB and understand it very well.

Three weeks after buying my licence, I received an email from vBulletin informing me that their new, all singing, all dancing version 4 software will be out soon.  I had mixed feelings once I saw this.  For one it’s excellent since it means new features, faster site, improved design and so on.  On the other hand, any styling changes I’ve made won’t work on a new site and until modification developers update or re-write their code, the dozen or so “mods” I’ve added to my site won’t work.  Now I haven’t made the new site live to users yet so there’s no big deal in waiting a bit longer so I can ensure the site isn’t disrupted once live; however there’s no release date posted and there was a bigger annoyance which prompted this blog post:

Jelsoft (vBulletin’s parent company) have decided to change the licensing terms and provision.  The option to lease a licence has now gone.  Instead you buy version 4 and will receive updates to that product for as long as version 4 is Jelsoft’s latest version of vBulletin.  In line with this they made a series of time limited upgrade offers to existing customers.  Provided you have an active licence and you pay for version 4 before the end of October 2009, a discount of 50% is available.  Not bad you might think, but in my opinion totally unfair.

I paid out £85 for version 3 of the software.  I’ve made use of it for less than a month.  I’m entitled to this upgrade offer, which will set me back a further £85 (because I want to make use of their upcoming CMS/Blog product that’s integrated into the forum site.  Had I wanted a straight forum product, it would have been slightly cheaper).  The thing is, the same offer was available to anyone else with an active licence, so if another person had just one day left on their licence for v3, they’d be entitled to the same upgrade.

Personally, I felt that the level of discount given for upgrade should be done on a pro-rata basis.  If you’ve got hardly any licence terms left, you get a small discount.  If you’ve only just bought the v3 product, you get a bigger discount.  I understand Jelsoft need to make money, but essentially I’ve just paid them £85 for 3 weeks use of a product that would have previously cost me less than £5 for the same period of time on my old licence terms.  (i.e. renew every year).  What made matters worse was when I contacted them to discuss my concerns, it wasn’t a positive experience.  Read for yourselves below:

My initial email

Hi there,

I received the email regarding the pre-sale of version 4. All very exciting!

I literally bought vBulletin version 3 leased licence last month. Since we have 11 months remaining on our licence, I wondered what happens to this if I now participate in the pre-sale? I don’t want to be out of pocket, but I do want to take part.

I’m sorry for asking, but your FAQ doesn’t seem to cover this.

Cheers,

Rob
(customer number removed)

Their initial response

With an upgrade to the new license, renewals go away, so you will continue to have access to the current version and the entire life of 4.0.

The fact that you have an active license gives you access to the pre-sales offer for $130 instead of the full price of $285.

My follow up

I can see that I get the benefit of the discount but so would someone with 1 month’s licence remaining. I’d have hoped we’d get a pro rata reduction on our purchase otherwise those of us who have either just got the product recently or renewed are paying an awful lot of money for essentially a short period of time given that if we want to stay secure we have to move to 4. I’ll be very disappointed if vbulletin can’t ensure their customers are left feeling ripped off.

I look forward to your reply.

Their subsequent reply

That’s correct, you get the same discount.

My disappointed reply

I’m gobsmacked, really I am. I understood this contact medium to be vBulletin’s platform by which you interact with your customers for support and customer service matters. Your initial canned response and then quick response to my last email are far from any level of customer service.

I took the time to point out that your upgrade offer, whilst discounted, is grossly unfair. As a brand new customer, I’ve already paid you for one year’s service. Because vBulletin have decided to move the goal posts of licensing, if I wish to continue to use your product and get both support and security updates, I’m going to have to pay out to upgrade. As you’ve already agreed, I with 11 months remaining am being offered the same discount as someone who has just a day remaining on their licence. This is far from reasonable and what vBulletin should be offering is a pro-rata rebate on the upgrade. I’d be a fool not to take the upgrade discount given what the full price will be when my already paid up time has come to a close. This, in essence, places existing customers over a barrel and is tantamount to extortion.

I didn’t ask you to just confirm that I was getting the same offer as those with less time left. What I asked was what vBulletin are going to do about my dis-satisfaction of the decision to have both a flawed and unfair upgrade path. I didn’t expect a quip response back.

Please take this matter seriously since I am very disappointed that the only interaction I’ve had with your company so far has been a negative one. I’m more than happy to raise a grievance with the relevant department if you’d be gracious enough to forward appropriate details, but in the meantime, I’d appreciate it if you’d please respond to all the points I raised as opposed to a dismissive reply.

Thank you for your time.

Their explanation

Please excuse the short reply. We’re currently being swamped with tickets.

I’m sorry you feel this is unfair but we do not offer a pro-rata rebate. Unfortunately I can’t do anything about that and this is also not bound to change. Nonetheless I will forward your concern and disappointment to the relevant people.

If you choose not to upgrade then you can continue to use your license under the current terms and will receive upgrades until your license expires.

My escalation

Hi there and thank you for the prompt and detailed reply – it is much appreciated.

I would be grateful if you would please escalate my concerns (as offered) because it feels like I’m throwing away the 11 months investment we have remaining. We run a site that doesn’t have advertising and makes no money. It’s supports a community and relies on donations from its members to cover hosting, domains and any miscellaneous stuff. We have used phpBB for the last 4 years but made the decision to move to vBulletin (despite cost) because we wanted something better, more reliable and supported properly. To be honest, we weren’t expecting v4 to be some close. We’d like to make a saving on our upgrade, who wouldn’t, we just don’t feel the upgrade path has been very well thought out. If we upgrade our web server, we are given a rebate on remaining provision against our new service. If we upgrade our voice communication server, the same thing happens.

I thank you for your time on this matter and appreciate your hands are tied. I look forward to hearing from the people whom you forward our concerns to promptly.

The final verdict

We have discussed this with top management and there is no change to this policy. You are free to take advantage of the limited time offer to upgrade your license to vB4 Suite at a substantial discount, or you can run your leased license until it expires and either remove the software at that time or purchase a new license at full price.

In the end I had to put my hand in my pocket, albeit with a bad taste in my mouth.  As a brand new customer, I am disappointed both in the level of customer service Jelsoft have displayed during my only ever dealing with them.  Ultimately, the combined price I have paid for version 4 is still less than what I would pay for version 4 as a brand new product, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling that anyone who has only recently taken out licencing for vBulletin is getting a raw deal versus someone who has been with or renewed with the company since more than six months ago.

Apologies for the long post.  Customer support rep names removed despite my desire to name and shame them.  I was hoping Jelsoft were on Twitter, but the only account I managed to find has two tweets.  Are you a vBulletin customer?  Do you feel we’re being ripped off or given a rubbish upgrade offer?  Is my opinion unjust?  Comments are, as always, welcome!

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