Internet Brands, vBulletin: The Annual Maintenance Crap

My apologies – the title of this post is “Annual Maintenance Pack.” As many of you may know, I run the legal advice forum at TheLaw.com which, since 2001, has used vBulletin software. Last year I wrote a column here in my blog, not being thrilled with a forced vBulletin version 4 upgrade fee after the option to buy updates to my version 3 software was suddenly ”discontinued.” Just when I thought the situation at Internet Brands couldn’t become more preposterous, the marketing comedy returns.

The Players

For those of you who are new to the vBulletin fiasco, here’s a short summary. In July 2007, the company that developed vBulletin (Jelsoft) was sold to Internet Brands, a scavenger and operator of community websites (yes, this means they are both developer and in competition with its customers.) After years of paying $30 to receive all the updates to my vBulletin 3 software, Internet Brands raised the price of the software and the annual maintenance fees for product updates to $40 in 2008. The following year in 2009,Internet Brands suddenly ceased offering customers the ability to purchase the annual updates to their vBulletin 3 software so it could pre-sell vBulletin 4 licenses instead for $130-210. In 2010, vBulletin Solutions plans to sell the same “maintenance pack” for $50 that I should have been able to buy for $40 last year and $30 the year earlier.

The Shut Out

I’m sure you’re thinking right now you’ve misread. One day the company simply stopped offering a customer who owned, e.g. version 3.6.2 the ability to download later versions of the product? Yes, that’s exactly what happened. Your choice was to either pay $130 or more during the October 2009 “presale” to buy vBulletin 4 (not out for months) and receive all vBulletin 3 updates or sit tight with your current version and watch forever from the sidelines. Why was this done? The only reason I can surmise is that Internet Brands wanted to make big numbers that quarter. vBulletin 3 owners would likely have opted to renew their right to receive vBulletin 3 product updates and pass on the vBulletin 4 upgrade, waiting to see what the raw product might become later. Ironically, right after the presale was pumped in press releases which reported “record sales”, the GM and chief presale promoter left the company to retire to build his dream house in Central America. You’re probably thinking what I’m thinking.

We spent the $130 to receive the updates to The Law Forums as well as a few other licenses but not the rest, hedging our losses. Despite our upgrading to vBulletin 4, it’s almost 10 months later since the dreaded pre-sale and many forums, including our own, have not been upgraded. We’ve refrained from doing so due to the reports of numerous bugs, interface and performance issues.

Unfortunately the price for a vBulletin 3 to vBulletin 4 upgrade is so high, it makes our vBulletin 3 licenses worthless as an upgrade option – even if vBulletin 4 is ever worth using. Quandary – Internet Brands will not be able to shake cash from vBulletin 3 license holders. How can they shake money from the tree?

The Tale

While numerous customers are irate that they haven’t heard much of anything concerned the next update to their vBulletin 4.0.4 software, Internet Brands was glad to announce the “Annual Maintenance Crap Pack” this past week. For the bargain price of $50, Internet Brands will sell all vBulletin customers who didn’t upgrade to vBulletin 4, all of the maintenance releases. In fact, they are giving certain customers a $20 discount as a way of appreciating their “valued support.”

So let me get this straight – the yearly product updates that I bought for $30 in 2007, which Internet Brands raised to $40 in 2008, and refused to sell me in 2009… is being offered to customers for $50 in 2010?  Now here is the kicker – if you bought a vBulletin 3 license for $180 in late August or September 2009, you found out that you had to pay $130 more to upgrade to vBulletin 4 just one month later! I don’t recall “courtesy upgrades” being given to those purchasers. Now since those last few purchasers of vBulletin 3 will no longer being able to download the updates to their software one year later, rather than giving just them these dozen product fixes gratis to “valued” customers, Internet Brands is charging them only $30! I apologize – giving them a $20 discount off the MSRP of $50 in return for their valued support.

When I read all of this, my jaw dropped. What made me even more shocked was witnessing the Stockholm Syndrome in the vBulletin Forums (closed to non-customers), where several budget customers were thanking Internet Brands for giving them this opportunity. Remarkable.

The Sting

I have a dilemma. Originally TheLaw.com was planning on using the vBulletin 4 platform, along with several other products, as part of our long term strategy. This was not because we wanted to do so, but switching to other forum software meant significant transitional costs in time, money and the unknown of reindexing and redirecting internal links on our site. As of right now it appears it will take a significant time for Internet Brands to fix what is wrong with vBulletin 4 while stabilizing the core product, which includes the potential overhaul of the forum templating and style system. Even if some of the technical problems are solved, it will take major time investment to customize my forums to the point where they return to being user friendly (the search interface, in particular, is a disaster in vBulletin 4) – only to have to do it again in version 4.1. If only the company would share its short and long term plans for the vBulletin product, which it does not.

But I have other concerns. How many fees am I going to have to pay in the future to Internet Brands? The past 3 years have been punishing and refusing me the ability to upgrade my software – without any prior notice or opportunity – reeks of a similar odor as consumer fraud. I have one other very significant concern and have personal experience with this issue – Internet Brands is now in competition with me and every site that runs vBulletin software. I cannot find examples of its own websites which have been converted to the new vBulletin 4 product. Why not? They certainly have the resources and far more “know how” than any of its customers whom they expected to upgrade. Are the customers being used as beta testers (guinea pigs) before converting their own sites? There is always the issue of Internet Brands having a competitive advantage, having inside knowledge of their own software and any future developments. It’s disconcerting, to say the least.

At this point I’ve begun experimenting with Invision Power Systems’ InvisionBoard. Wow! The interface, ease of use and overall direction are miles ahead of where vBulletin 4 is at this point. There has been some learning curve but  I’m going to launch one site shortly using IPB. I have been toying with the idea of converting The Law Forums to this great product. My main limitation? The extremely difficult migration of all user data and statistics from vBulletin and its corresponding plugins. This includes some unique searching and indexing functionality that make The Law Forums one of the best resources online to find law that pertains to your state and jurisdiction. There is also the issue of forum links which will now be forever changed. But we’ll have to see what sacrifices can be made since it is preferable to being held hostage and being forced to enjoy the experience. Time to get my Internet Brands Vuvezela and watch the World Cup Final.

Michael M. Wechsler, Esq. – has written posts on The Law Professor.

Michael M. Wechsler, Esq.

Internet / Mobile entrepreneur since 1989, Intellectual Property attorney since the mid 1990s, former in-house counsel at iVillage.com, Senior Vice President of Business Strategy at Zedge, Co-Founder of the IDT Internet Mobile Group, E-Discovery expert and legal consultant with Kroll Ontrack, and owner and operator of TheLaw.com

Comments

  1. publius says

    See also Ran Decisions v. Internet Brands filed Monday in U.S. District Court Central District of California.

  2. Michael M. Wechsler, Esq. says

    Thanks Publius. Rumor has it that this dispute is on the community operation side of the business, apparently the FlyerTalk forums. I have read elsewhere that the complaint allegedly states that Internet Brands has not completed payments for its 2007 purchase FlyerTalk in 2007 and failed to provide technical support – but we’ll see for sure once it becomes available on Pacer. What’s interesting to me is that FlyerTalk, a very large vBulletin forum, has also not been converted to vBulletin 4 – the most powerful community software. Why am I not surprised?

  3. says

    I own and operate three very large vBulletins (as well as dozens of other web properties) and I refuse to pay Internet Brands ridiculous upgrade options. I guess I will stick with 3.XX until I can figure out what to do next.

    At least I can sleep at night knowing I am not being ripped off by those morons.

  4. says

    I fully agree and as I’m aquiring a new forum right now, I’m seriously thinking of switching. XenForo or maybe Invision might be my choice, after having been a long-time vBulletin owner (migrating from UltimateBB where I started back in 2000). DId you do the switch? I can’t really figure out what thelaw.com is running now.