When you buy software, you should get support and documentation for the price you pay. Period.
Once upon a time no vendor would think of releasing a product without at least an initial period of free support and two or three manuals. Often support was available at a toll-free number. Many companies, to their credit, still offer free support. Macromedia, for example, gives registered users 90 days of free support. But other vendors have turned support and documentation into profit centers at the expense of their customers.
Take Microsoft. When business users buy Microsoft Server or Advanced Server, how much support do they get? Zero. If they can't solve a problem by wading through Microsoft's free online KnowledgeBase, they have to buy a Microsoft Authorized Premier Support contract for $9,900 for 15 incidents, or $660 per incident. For the same price, Microsoft could fly an engineer out to fix the problem!
You need support because problems are most likely to crop up when you first install and begin to work with a product. Documentation, if provided, can be a big help in this process. A reference guide can be an invaluable resource when a product exhibits unexpected behavior. I like printed documentation, but if the vendor only sends a CD-ROM or maintains documentation on its Web site, at least I know where to turn.
How much documentation does Microsoft bundle with its business products? Very little. Instead, Microsoft has set up a whole division, Microsoft Press, to print the manuals that should be included with its products and sell them like books.
If you're an investor, you have to admire the way Microsoft has leveraged its market-leading position into forcing users to pay more for its software than the price on the invoice. If you're a customer, however, you have to wonder if there's a better way. By the way, Microsoft isn't alone in this practice. Other enterprise vendors, including Novell and Check Point, also offer only paid support.
I don't have a problem with companies charging for value-added support services. Maybe you get the first 30 days free, then buy a yearly subscription -- but the subscription should be a reasonable fraction of the cost of the software itself. Maybe you get the first three incidents for free, then pay a fee for additional ones. That won't bankrupt any vendor, and it makes a huge difference to the customer's experience. If the software is set up right, chances are you're going to be fairly satisfied. If you can't get it going without paying for service above and beyond what you paid for the software, you have a right to be upset.
Microsoft's support contract is a major hidden contributor to its products' high total cost of ownership at a time when the competitive environment is better for customers than it has been for more than a decade. Linux is a viable operating system for Intel clients and servers, and many third-party applications can read Microsoft Office-format files. If enough customers vote with their pocketbooks, Microsoft -- and other miserly software vendors -- may be forced to renew their focus on giving customers what they demand.