Only Suckers Renew

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-10-18 Print this article Print

Opinion: If something goes up in price over 650 percent in four years it has to have gotten a whole lot better, right? The industry has shot anti-virus subscription prices up over the last few years hoping to make users pay full price every year.

The price of most things in the computer industry is driven down over time, from competition, economies of scale and advances in the technology. But one product is up over 650 percent in the last 4 years: the annual subscription to Norton Antivirus updates. In 2001 Symantec increased the price from $3.95 to $9.95, quite a large increase on its own. Just recently, coincident with the release of the 2006 versions of their security line of products, Symantec once again increased the price of the subscription renewal to $29.99. The new 2006 version of Norton Antivirus, of course including an annual subscription itself, costs $39.99. Symantecs message is clear: youre a sucker if you dont upgrade the program. The only question is whether youre a sucker for getting the new version too.

Symantec has absolutely been the leader in this price boom, but most other vendors have happily kept up. Many trail a bit behind. All of them are pricing their products so that you have a strong incentive not to renew your subscription, but to upgrade to the new version. From what I can tell, McAfee has moved completely to a subscription model for the software. The cheapest resubscription I could find was Computer Associates eTrust EZ Antivirus at $19.95. Their new product is only $29.95, so it too is no big savings over a full upgrade.

So the point is not to get you to pay more for your signature resubscription; its to move you to a model where you subscribe at once to software and signature updates, the model to which Symantec has moved with the 2006 products. The annual product version model is dead, more or less. If you were to buy Norton 2006 six months from now, and even if they come out with major updates in another 12 months, youd get all the updates.

I guess if I were an anti-virus company I would do this too; after all, the product actually doesnt change much from year to year, so theres not much point in existing customers upgrading. Symantec does claim advances in their products over the years, including the new 2006 versions—in particular a new Norton Protection Center which attempts to explain complex issues in straightforward language. I havent tested the new products so I cant say whether theyre worth going through the trouble of an upgrade. And installing a new Norton product these days is definitely a process that goes wrong for some (check out this link too). Anyway, with respect to the new features they add each year, so what? They may justify price increases in the new versions, but they dont justify increases in subscription cost for users of old versions who dont get the benefit of new features.

Next page: The Good and Bad of Subscriptions

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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