O’Reilly gets it wrong

O’Reilly’s Safari service provides access to thousands of books online, instantly, for a reasonable fixed monthly price. It’s a fantastic service for people like me who are frequently learning new technologies and working from a number of different locations. It’s such a good service, in fact, that even when they’ve ruined their web site and done everything they can to annoy their customers, I still can’t imagine giving it up.

Safari’s original service was to provide the text of the books in HTML form. Recently they launched a new version of the software, which does away with plain HTML and forces the reader to use a Flash-based viewer, providing reasonably faithful replication of the pages of the book but making plain text harder to read.

O’Reilly did just about everything wrong that they could have done with the launch. The new software is buggy to the point of being almost unusable, with navigation broken and corrupt and missing content commonplace. Despite the fact that this was a feature nobody asked for, the old (and bug-free) way of browsing the content as HTML was disabled as soon as the new feature went live. When customers protested that they found the new interface harder to use and preferred the old one, O’Reilly chose to argue with their customers and tell them why they were wrong. Reports of intermittent bugs are frequently met with “works for me”, with customers being forced to act as unpaid (in fact paying!) QA staff to reproduce bugs and provide evidence.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere. Safari isn’t Twitter, it’s a service that professionals pony up substantial amounts of money for on a monthly basis, and when people continue paying they expect to continue to receive the service. The fact that they have no direct competitor is the only thing saving them from a mass exodus at the moment, and most online services aren’t so lucky. The customer may not always be right, but they are never worth arguing with.

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