Every so often Mike and I like to talk about the "supply side" of the photography writers' business. This one's about the strangest reviewer experience I've ever had, without a doubt. So sit right back and you'll hear a tale...
Back in the early "noughts" I wrote an article for Photo Techniques magazine on working cross-platform. Back then, Virtual PC was the state-of-the-art emulator. I was long overdue to revisit the topic, so we scheduled a new article, wherein I would compare various and sundry virtualization engines (VMware Fusion, Parallels, VirtualBox and the like) running photographically useful applications. I acquired several virgin copies of Windows Vista Ultimate and talked to the public relations people for VMware at Mac Expo last year. They gave me a copy of Fusion on the spot.
Fusion installed with no trouble on my MacBook Pro, and Windows Vista went into that with nary a complaint. I had a nice clean install on a system with plenty of hardware resources, and the performance gauges looked nominal. That's when things started going sour.
I know emulation's pitfalls, and don't have unduly high performance expectations. But my installation was unusable. It was so slow and balky that I couldn't even drag a window without getting stuttering and ghosting, with long pauses between responses to my input that made apps entirely unworkable. Obviously something was badly wrong. I knew people out there who are using this combination for productive work. No way they could have been seeing the non-performance I was.
I decided to try another approach and migrate my less demanding, everyday Windows 2000 PC system over to Fusion. I installed the migration tool on my PC, launched it, and one minute later got the blue screen of death. I tried reconfiguring it every which way. Either it didn't run at all, or it went to BSOD.
Okay, I'm a reviewer; I'm good at breaking things. I posted some messages in the users' forums to see if they could be of any help; they weren't. So I logged onto the VMware website to register my software to get the complimentary tech support. Reviewers typically get tech support at a higher level than ordinary consumers, but I always like to try going through end-user channels to see what that's like. But the website wouldn't accept my software's serial number!
Finally I figured out how to contact customer support without a "valid" serial number, which was much trickier than it should be. That's when it went from sour to completely surreal.
Customer support informed me that my serial number won't register because it was a "giveaway" product and they don't provide complimentary support on giveaway products. I carefully and politely explained that I'm a reviewer. As I wrote to VMware support in my final e-mail, "Honestly, do you really want reviewers writing things like, 'I tried Feature X. It didn't work for me,' without them ever getting a hold of a support person to find out if there is a fix for their problem or if there's something they don't understand? I kind of doubt that."
It was like talking to a brick wall. All they'd tell me is that I'm not entitled to any technical support. I understand companies who don't want to provide me with a product because I'm not a major reviewer. Never before have I encountered a company that was enthusiastic about me reviewing their product but wasn't the least bit interested in making sure I was using it properly. Usually they're all over you for not talking to them about a problem before publishing (which is a whole 'nother ethical issue Mike and I have discussed at some length).
I wrote the PR agency describing this bizarre situation and asked if they could do anything about it. Still no support.
A month or so later, I was at a party with a bunch of my hacker friends, and I mentioned this bizarre incident within earshot of a friend who's a senior engineer at VMware. He took it upon himself to kick an internal e-mail upstairs on the matter. Still nothing from VMware.
Meanwhile, Photo Technique magazine was undergoing major revisions, de-emphasizing product reviews and so making this particular project low priority. I decided to give it one more go, though, this year at Mac Expo. At the VMware booth I found that there's been substantial turnover in their support and public relations teams. The people I talked to were appropriately appalled at hearing what happened. They promised to get me a copy of the latest version of the software, with a support license, as soon as the dust settled after the show.
That was more than two months ago. I've heard nothing. If I really cared, I'd follow up; I understand stuff can fall through the cracks at a trade show. But, this is my fourth unsuccessful attempt to penetrate VMware's iron curtain.
In the meantime, Mactech came out with a detailed performance comparison between VMware and Parallels (here and here) that clearly demonstrated that, for my own personal needs, as opposed to my needs as a reviewer, Parallels was going to suit me much better. I went out and bought a copy. So far it's given me no grief, although I'm still figuring out how to optimize performance.
Understand that I hold no grudge against VMware; some of my friends work there! I know many people who are happy with their products. Heck, I might even have been one of them...if they'd given me a chance to find out. But they made my job as a responsible reviewer impossible. And in doing so, did themselves out of some (very likely) favorable press.
Ctein's regular weekly column is published every Thursday morning.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.