ProPhoto version 4 was released to the public a little over a year ago, in September of 2011. It’s been a phenomenal success, with tons of well-received new features like mobile sites, non-flash slideshows, grids, custom fonts, Facebook comments, a new menu system, and much more. Maybe the most important new feature of P4 was automatic updating, which allowed us to seamlessly push bug fixes, enhancements, and loads of free new features to our users throughout the year, with no complicated update process.
Internally, as of last month (September 2012), we have officially stopped putting new features into ProPhoto4 and are beginning to work on the next major release of ProPhoto, version 5 (P5). ProPhoto4 will still be supported for a long time to come, and we’ll keep pushing auto-updates as needed to fix bugs or ensure compatibility with newly released versions of WordPress, but there will be no major new functionality added to ProPhoto4. New features will be going into P5 instead, which, when it is ready, will be a paid upgrade, as usual.
Why do we charge for major upgrades?
You might be asking why you should pay to upgrade ProPhoto — why we don’t release all upgrades for free? The reason is pretty simple. In a nutshell, our business model would very quickly become unsustainable if we never charged for upgrades. And that’s because of how fanatically we do support. We spend a ton of time, resources, energy, and money supporting our users. We figured out early on if we kept adding new customers and continuing to support all of our old customers without ever requiring them to upgrade, we’d probably have to either go out of business or drastically reduce support quality. So, we instituted our long-standing policy of releasing large, paid upgrades about every 12-18 months, and only actively supporting users on the two most recent releases. That means, for instance, that we currently only support P3 and P4 users (although we’re softies and still help out the occasional, rare P2 user). That also means that if you choose not to upgrade at all (which, of course, you’re completely welcome to do) you’ll still get about 3 years of fanatical service from us at the minimum.
All in all, our upgrade policy has worked well. A few people always complain about having to pay for major upgrades, but it’s allowed us to steadily grow and add awesome employees, always maintaining the same level of customer service you’ve come to expect from us. We’ve never tried to compete on price anyway — we’re not interested in racing to the bottom. There are other services and products out there that are cheaper. At the end of the day, we’d rather have fewer customers that pay us a little bit more so we can give them our full attention and enjoy our lives while we do it.
The problem with our upgrade cycle
All that said, I’ve grown a bit frustrated with some aspects of our current model of releasing major upgrades. My main frustration is that our current model causes us to go through a 6-9 month period where no new major features are released to our users. This is because we branch off and start working on the new version, putting all the new features we’re working on into the unreleased development version. We feel we need to do this in order to store up a bunch of cool new features in the unreleased new version so that when we eventually do release it, it has a lot of “wow” factor and presents a pretty compelling value proposition to our users for purchasing the upgrade.
Again, this has worked pretty well for us, but it does have it’s drawbacks. The main drawback is our users don’t get the new features immediately as soon as they’re completed. There might be a great feature you’d like to use, and it might be the first feature we complete for the next version, but since we save it for the upgrade, you don’t get that feature for a number of months. This drawback is even more pronounced now that we have the ability to push out new features so easily using our auto-updater. It frustrates us to think that from the outside, ProPhoto development seemingly stagnates for a lengthy period while we finish enough new features to justify releasing a paid upgrade.
What we’re considering
Because of the above-stated problem, this time around we’re at least considering making a change to our basic release cycle. After a lengthy internal meeting to discuss the issue where we discussed pros and cons of several possible scenarios, we thought we would solicit your opinion. In the sections below I’ll describe the three main options we’re currently considering. We would love it if you would take a few minutes to carefully and thoughtfully read and consider these options, and then vote in the poll widget below. You can also add any further feedback or discussion into the comments area on the bottom of the post.
Option 1: Normal release cycle
In this scenario, we stick with what we’ve always done. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Taking this approach, we would spend probably the next 6-9 months putting in a bunch of cool new features and capabilities into P5 and plan on a release date of late Spring or Summer 2013. When the release is ready, we’d stop selling P4 and only sell P5, and we would contact all P4 users letting them know that a major upgrade was ready for them to purchase.
The upside of this option is that when the upgrade is ready, it will feel pretty easy for you to justify the upgrade cost — there will be a bunch of shiny new things the new version can do that you probably want. The downside is that from now until then, your P4 site will only get bug-fixes and compatibility patches — there will be no way for you to start using the features that are going into P5 as they become ready.
Option 2: Instant “soft” release
In this scenario, we would do a “soft” release of P5 as soon as the first relatively significant new feature was ready for primetime — probably around December of 2012. Once we hit that point, we would stop selling P4 altogether, and all new purchasers would be getting P5 (which at that moment would be the same as P4 plus one new feature). The release would be “soft” because we wouldn’t make a big fuss about it – we wouldn’t make a new feature video, tell P4 users to upgrade, or really announce it to the world — because at that point it would really only be an incremental improvement over P4. Also, at our “soft” release, any P4 users that knew about the P5 release and wanted to upgrade right then would be allowed to. They could pay the normal price for the upgrade and get the new version right then. It probably wouldn’t be technically worth the cost at that moment (considering there would only be one new feature), but they would know that they’d get every single new feature planned for P5, pushed via an auto-update, as soon as it was ready.
The big “pro” of this scenario is that P4 users who really want one of the first new features in P4 would be able to upgrade right away. Also, long-standing ProPhoto users who have come to know and trust that we put a bunch of good stuff in every paid release would have the ability to upgrade immediately, and get all of the new features as soon as they’re ready. In addition, brand new purchasers after the soft release would always be getting the fullest feature set available at that moment. P4 users that don’t care to upgrade at the time of the soft release would just go on their way, never really realizing (in all likelihood) that P5 was even released. We wouldn’t proposition them to upgrade because at that point, it’s not really worth the money yet, unless they really want the earliest added features specifically, or they trust that we’ll be adding enough new features as the weeks pass to justify the upgrade. Only later on, when 7-10 new features have already been added to P5 would we notify users still using P4 that they might want to purchase the upgrade. This would be the “full” release – the time when we really tell the world (especially P4 users) that P5 is ready for primetime.
The big “con” of ths approach is that early on some users might feel that we are releasing an upgrade that is not worth the price. If they see that they can upgrade to P5 at a time when there are not very many new features, they might feel that we are releasing an upgrade that is lacking in new features.
Option 3: Public Beta
The third thing we could do is release P5 as soon as the first new feature is ready, but release it along side of P4 as an optional, paid, public beta. Under this option, P4 would still be for sale on our site, but users would also have the option to instead purchase the “beta” version of P5. The beta version would be priced the same (or possibly just marginally less expensive until the actual release), and would make the most sense for long-time users who didn’t mind trading a small amount of instability for the privilege of staying on the bleeding edge of new features and capabilities in ProPhoto. There would be no widespread notification of P4 users directing them to upgrade until a number of new features were ready in P5 and it came out of it’s “beta” period.
The “pro” of this approach is similar to option 2 — users can get the new features as soon as possible and long-term users that know they will eventually upgrade anyway can do so in advance and use each new feature as it is developed. It also mitigates a bit the confusion potentially caused by quietly switching to selling P5 before a large number of major improvements are ready.
The “con” of this approach is that it adds a layer of confusion and complexity – we would be selling two versions at once for a number of months. Also, you could make an argument that there is no reason that brand-new purchasers (not ProPhoto users who want to upgrade) should not get the public beta automatically. Finally, some could find it awkward to be charging full (or nearly full) price for a beta version.
We’d really like your opinion on this. We don’t guarantee that we’ll go with the most popular option, but your feedback is very important to us. If you’ve taken a moment to read the above options and carefully consider them, would you quickly vote in the poll below? Also, below the poll leave any additional feedback in the comments section. Thanks so much for reading this far! — your input and feedback really is important and we will seriously consider it as we move forward into the next season for ProPhoto.
-GOTCHA- Note: please only vote if you have carefully read the descriptions of the three options above — they may not mean what you think they mean by just reading the poll options. -/-