Fee move by eBay likely to be followed

Friday June 01, 2001

The Associated Press 


SAN JOSE — People across the country who sell things on eBay are furious with the auction site because of its recent move to charge subscription fees for a popular piece of software that makes it easier to list items. 

In irate notes on message boards and e-mails to the company, sellers accuse eBay of getting greedy and belying its warm and fuzzy community-focused image. Some are threatening a class-action suit because older versions of the software, which cost as much as $200, stopped working. 

Everyone else who uses the Internet should take note. 

An increasing number of companies, including giant Microsoft Corp., are expected to embrace subscription models and move away from selling software for a one-time fee. The companies say they simply can’t afford to keep giving away free upgrades. 

“The trend is undeniable – it’s just a question of how long it’s going to take,” said Rob Enderle, a research fellow with Giga Information Group. “The existing model isn’t working. You can certainly try to live in the past, but whether you’re a Microsoft or an eBay, you’re probably going to get bypassed.” 

Microsoft has introduced subscription-based options for business software, including the new Office XP, and called the move a “first step toward offering software as a service” — meaning subscription plans for all users. Oracle Corp. gives away sales force management software for now, but has indicated it eventually will charge a subscription. 

The eBay software was known as Auction Assistant, and now is called Seller’s Assistant. Because it helps eBay users post attractive presentations of their products and manage the transactions, it is popular among people who list several items at once. 

It was created by Pennsylvania-based Blackthorne Software, which eBay acquired in 1999. 

Users say they bought Auction Assistant and its supercharged version, Auction Assistant Pro, for $50 to $200 over the years with the understanding that Blackthorne would upgrade the software for free when improvements were available, or when needed because of technical changes in the massive eBay site. 

In February, Blackthorne informed users Auction Assistant was being upgraded, taking on the new Seller’s Assistant name and switching to a subscription model – $4.99 a month for the basic version, $15.99 for Pro. Existing Auction Assistant users were told they could get a year’s subscription to the new software for free. 

On April 1, Blackthorne’s president, John Slocum, wrote on the company’s online discussion board that almost two-thirds of Auction Assistant users had switched to Seller’s Assistant. He added that, after April 30, Blackthorne “cannot assure users that Auction Assistant will continue to be fully functional or compatible with the eBay site.” 

Despite the warning, many users were caught off guard when their Auction Assistant programs stopped working last week. They accused eBay of intentionally making Auction Assistant useless to force them to buy the new software. 

“Why weren’t we just grandfathered in, since we already owned the same program?” said Cindy Izon of Tulsa, Okla., who sells decorative dolls on eBay. “It makes me so mad.” 

Dan Rushing of Albuquerque, N.M., lamented what he called eBay’s “extreme arrogance.” 

Collectibles seller Carol Hudson of Chattanooga, Tenn., wrote in an e-mail interview: “Most of us have been angry with them for two or three years because of their ‘do it our way or get lost’ attitude. But this time, they have really gone too far and shown their true colors.” 

EBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said nothing was done intentionally to disable older versions of Auction Assistant. He said what occurred is most likely “the natural obsolescence that’s going to be developing any time a piece of software ages.” 

He also said the subscription model is necessary to finance continued improvements to the Blackthorne software, and disputed suggestions the company was taking unfair advantage of its dominating position in the online auction business. 

“I realize that’s a fairly common remark when any customer has a certain level of frustration, but it doesn’t do the business any good to ‘bleed people dry,”’ Pursglove said. “We want users to continually come to eBay, to continually use the Blackthorne programs to sell on eBay.” 


Arthur Newman, head of Internet research at ABN Amro Inc., supported eBay’s stance and said it is part of the new economics of the Web. 

“I think the Internet over the last few years has spawned a whole generation of people who expect to get everything for free and forget you have to pay for services,” he said. “If people can’t make money providing them, they’re going to stop providing them. There’s a limit to good will. EBay is hardly alone in starting to charge for things.” 


On the Net: 

Main site: http://www.ebay.com 

Message boards: http://pages.ebay.com/community/chat/index.html