Recently I’ve made a decision to stop using Trillian, an instant messaging client that I have enjoyed for over 5 years. When I discovered it back in 2002, it was an amazing find: a client that enabled me to use all my IM networks with just one program. At that time it was easy for me to justify sending $25 to Cerulean Studios to purchase the Pro version. The license you bought it is a bit quirky. When you go Pro, you get the current version, plus 1 year of support and any software updates. Ideally, it seems like Cerulean did it with the intention that their pro users are more like subscribers. The $25 seemed like a good deal and while I would have been satisfied with the version (2) I bought, I was hopeful they would be making more enhancements in the coming months.
Fast-forward to 2 years later, when Cerulean finally releases version 3 in 2004. The next version looked so sexy and functional that I found myself shelling another $25 to buy the year subscription and get the next version. At this point it seemed like a good deal and I was once again hopeful more enhancements would be made. Here we are, almost 3 years later and there isn’t even a beta release of their next version.
The latest buzz has been around Trillian Astra. Announced in late 2005, Astra started requesting alpha testers back in March of 2006, now 14 months later we have yet to see any kind beta (public or otherwise). Astra has been a long time coming, and frankly it’s been too long. They gave us this awesome preview site in November, and 8 months later we’re no closer to getting our hands on even a beta copy. As a paying loyal customer of 5 years, I’m tired of waiting.
I realize delays come up and things happen, but when Cerulean has the licensing model that they have – where you get free upgrades for a year – it implies that they make enhancements to their software in a timely manner. It would be one thing if you paid for a full installation and then rewarded your customers with upgrade pricing, but it’s ridiculous to pay full price each time. Cerulean expects me to shell out $75 just to IM – yeah right. I feel especially bad for people who got too excited when their preview site came out in November 2006 and they renewed their subscription – now they’re in danger of not getting a production version of Astra for that year.
The worst part about it is visiting their development blog. I read about how hard they’re working with development and every week they talk about pushing out a new build to their limited group of alpha testers, then the same insider clique flood the comments with ravings about the latest features. It’s like standing outside a locked bakery and watching people stuff themselves with cake. All the while you get the same “we’re opening for beta testing soon” for what is now months. If anyone dare mentions that no new testers have been invited for months the Cerulean apologists take a bullet for the development team. “man, leave them be!! those are careful and competent people, buddy.”
As a developer, I understand things take time, but I also understand that in the world of software you don’t work on something indefinitely. If they’re still adding new features, then the Astra product has a major scope creep problem. Worse yet, just blogging about how you’re working hard isn’t enough – you have to release something tangible that demonstrates to your customers that you’re working hard. These closed-off alpha builds aren’t cutting it. Come on, the Microsoft Vista Development Team thinks you guys are taking too long – at least they’ve had open alphas and betas of Vista. Not only are your customers now frustrated, but they’re also becoming disinterested.
A few weeks ago, I started using Pidgin (formerly Gaim) as IM client. It may not be as pretty as Trillian, but it definitely delivers the features most need. Better yet, they went official with their version 2 release and are making updates on a regular basis. With all of that for free why do I want to consider shelling out another $25 for empty promises and excuses? $25 for software I use every day is reasonable, but I’m not going to spend $75+ just so I can IM my friends and co-workers.
At this point Cerulean has lost me as a customer, but if they want to prevent further PR losses they should think about improving their development process:
- Publish some semblance of a release schedule. People may criticize you if you have to delay it, but at least something is out there.
- Open up testing spots, even if you let them trickle in slowly or give them some kind of limited functionality, it gives people something to get excited about
- Change your pricing model, do away with the subscriptions and reward your longtime customers with upgrade pricing
I’m not trying to pretend to be a great software pundit. I am simply a customer that has enjoyed Trillian in the past but has become disenfranchised due to the perceived lack of progress in the fast-paced world of web software development. From reading their blog comments, it doesn’t look like I’m alone.