HP cuts off upgrades to spite its loyal customers

10 Feb 2014

If you have an HP ProLiant server, or a ProCurve switch, then you'd better set some time aside before February 19th to download the drivers, BIOS updates, patches and fixes for your model from the HP support website. Because after that date, unless you have a current warranty or a Care Pack Service Agreement, you will be unable to get your download.

In a startlingly brief five-paragraph blog post entitled, with no obvious sense of irony, "Customers for life", senior HP staffer Mary McCoy lays out the company’s rationale for this move and slips in various interestingly chosen phrases, such as that this "aligns with industry best practices" and that HP is "in no way trying to force customers to purchase extended coverage".

This will of course be a situation with some pros and cons. However, I don't think HP realise just how far the shadow of such an announcement will be cast: the starting point for me is that if I had to think carefully about all the servers I deal with day in day out, the HP ones are the kind that need the least persistent fiddling with when it comes to firmware downloads and driver updates. Switches, ditto: though these often benefit more when the update process is done, because they tend to be left utterly alone for many years...

HP has just given carte blanche to some of the most pernicious, time-consuming and annoying parts of the web: the fakers

The big problem with paywalling updates like these is that HP has just given carte blanche to some of the most pernicious, time-consuming and annoying parts of the web: the fakers.

If you are in the habit of searching for drivers to download and apply then you will have seen the SEO fight that's developed between perfectly straightforward, utterly honest vendor driver libraries, and shysters who have realised that they can easily make a friendlier front-end to the HP support labyrinth (or the Microsoft one, or Packard Bell: no vendor is immune, big or small).

And, when they've shown you what looks like a promising link to the particular Care Pack you're after, they wrap it up with three other utilities, a BHO and a shopping toolbar for your browser, while they're at it.

Firmware and fixes for machines fall right into the hands of these sites, because so far they have been freely downloadable: everybody's got a folder on their server with a current set for that machine (at least, I hope they do). This means that faker sites can claim to have a download, and it may even be usable on your machine, but with the up-to-date files hidden inside a paywall, you can't tell whether you're getting the real thing.

Worse still, and something that I've always disliked in the IT business, is the emotional-blackmail freebie. The worst example of this used to be copies of Microsoft Office, which tight-fisted users would gladly take on a favours basis from "helpful" computer mates. Admittedly, the ecosystem of server room nerds hungry for BIOS upgrades is a rather smaller one than in the case of MS Office, but the effect remains the same: "oh yes guv my mate's got those, nudge nudge" is an unhealthy way to look after vital systems.

Which, when you think about it, is a kind of twisted mirror for HP's stated motivations. Taking ownership of something as vital as a server BIOS out of the hands of the shifty back-street support network, and putting it back at a validated, confirmable source, is a very good way of ensuring that your users stay in a tight relationship with their accredited suppliers.

(Except, these things can go too far. I well remember my sense of surprise and discomfort when asking for a firmware upgrade to an Allied Teleysn layer 3 switch dumped me on a page where far too many questions strayed much too far outside the simple remit of a download, and on into my travel plans, country of residence and political affiliations, because AT wanted to clear my software request with the Department of Homeland Security. A week or so later, I got my files.)

Almost everyone I've spoken to thinks the whole "support warranty customers only" idea is utter madness. Many servers - especially ones as well made as HP's - run for years beyond the notional end of their maintenance cover, and generating an impression that this should be time to re-buy, re-think and re-provision only seems good inside the faintly fantastical world of the evangelical sales guru.

This, for me, is the longest shadow of all: an impact which is based on the feeling that this restriction might affect you further on down the line, in ways you can't predict, when in fact it won't really matter at all. That's how not to make your customers feel, HP.

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