Sibelius and the risk of proprietary software

Before doing what I do now, I used to do music. It’s not an environment I’m involved in to any great extent any more, although I certainly wouldn’t rule out taking it up again at some point in the future.

So it was interesting after reading about recent customer upset involving much-loved proprietary software vendors being acquired to learn that users of the Sibelius music notation product are similarly getting burned by recent moves by parent company Avid Technology.

In this case, it looks like Avid have shuttered the UK office where Sibelius was originally developed (along with many other products in their portfolio) in what looks like a considerable cost-cutting drive. Reading the general outpouring of concern from Sibelius customers online, I was struck by just how eerily familiar the whole thing sounded to someone who’d gone through the whole rigmarole before – in this case, my experience with Oracle.

For example, the creation of online user concern groups (also on Facebook), the inevitable petitioning of Avid (and publishing of contact information for its senior management team), and representatives from Avid being trotted out to reassure customers of their “commitment” to the product – even though it looks like a large chunk of the core development team have already walked the plank.

Do I think that petitions and corporate assurances are going to make any difference to the likely future of Sibelius whatsoever? Not a chance. This is business, and it’s the risk any customer takes when investing in a product based on non-standard, proprietary technology. You can’t successfully shame nor persuade a corporation (especially a giant like Avid) into rethinking whatever decisions they’ve already made, planned probably months before the announcement. Been there, done that, doesn’t work. Avid management are probably really not too concerned with Sibelius users’ feelings, nor their user community: like many other major technology vendors, they’ll do whatever it takes to satisfy their shareholders, if it means killing or reducing development in a few niche products along the way. Put it this way, this is not the first time a major technology vendor has screwed their professional users, and it sure won’t be the last.

The best scenarios I think Sibelius users can hope for are:

1) Sibelius development continues just fine in whatever office the product moves to
2) The original Sibelius development team sets up privately, launches a competing product
3) Sibelius eventually gets sold to another company that dicks around with it or the pricing, or just lets it languish
4) Competitors start offering extremely attractive crossgrades. Sure enough – check this out.

Scenario 1) would appear to be the least likely scenario, by far. And it would appear Avid have already somewhat indicated their intent on the immediate likelyhood of scenario 3).

It’ll probably take a few months to see where current events lead to with Sibelius the product, but I suspect a lot of customers may start to look at option 4) – until such time that the alternative also hits the rocks, screws its customers, or sells out. And the glorious cycle continues – joy!

The only true peace of mind for me in investing time and resources into any critical application is when it’s based on open source code and open standards. I’d like to think that some of the energy being expended by Sibelius users here would be spent looking at open source notation alternatives, but sadly I don’t see this happening – much the same way in which the vast majority of office apps users can’t handle anything without the Microsoft brand on it.

Still, I do hope I’m being premature, and at least I would hope to see Avid prove any comparisons to Oracle wrong.


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