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A new agenda for the SPA.

By its own yardsticks of performance, the Software Publishers Association has become one of the software world's great success stories. The SPA brings in close to $10 million in revenues, employs 44 people, hosts two conferences that attract more than a thousand attendees each, operates a branch office in Paris, and publishes dozens of research reports, newsletters and guidebooks.

Yet outside the SPA'S Washington, D.C. offices, the industry's leading trade association is viewed with much less enthusiasm. Although new members continue to sign up, a growing percentage of SPA recruits these days are either neophytes or service vendors; meanwhile, active participation among mid-sized, mainstream companies (especially at conferences) continues to decline. A bewildering number of special interest constituencies control the SPA's research

programs, conference agendas, budgets, even the annual Software Excellence awards categories.

The focus of much of the dissatisfaction is executive director Ken Wasch, an energetic ex-lawyer who built the SPA from scratch and is still the organization's most effective lobbyist. But, critics say, Wasch now can't figure out where to take his organization or how to deruse some serious political infighting. "My job is to do what the members want me to do," he insists, somewhat plaintively.

Wasch argues that most of the SPA's critics--ourselves included--are "business competitors" who have an axe to grind. In fact, it's hard not to compete with the SPA, whose own empire-building efforts have brought the association into conflict with a long list of independent research firms, conference promoters, consultants, and publishers. (Wasch says Soft.letter falls in this category, but--for the record--our policy is not to compete in any area where the SPA already offers a service. If any conflicts have occurred, they haven't been economically significant to either us or the SPA.)

But Wasch misses the point when he says only his competitors are complaining. Lots of people--members, ex-members, even SPA employees-- have become convinced that the association has become both fragmented and increasingly irrelevant. The evidence is painfully clear at the SPA's conferences, where only a handful of chief executives from major software companies bother to show up. In a sense, the SPA has ceased to be an industry forum; it's now little more than a kind of supermarket for odds and ends of services that are hard to find elsewhere. The SPA cash registers keep ringing up sales, but it's hard to find members who feel any real loyalty to the SPA, or take its leadership role seriously.

That's a situation that should change. We're convinced that the SPA could be a much stronger, much more interesting organization. Toward that end, we'd like to offer a few suggestions:

* Spin off the software cops: At one time, the SPA played a useful role in educating users about software piracy. But piracy litigation has turned out to be an obsession with the SPA, in part because the effort is so lucrative. In the SPA's most recent fiscal year, the association took in $3.5 million in copyright settlements, compared to a total of $6 million in membership and conference revenues for all of its other U.S. and European operations. And the anti-piracy war chest keeps growing. Wasch says the SPA currently holds $4 million in "segregated" funds from copyright settlements.

For an industry that's already overburdened with lawsuits, the SPA's piracy efforts have created a serious image problem. Earlier this year, for example, Aaron Goldberg blasted the SPA's junkyard-dog mentality in a PC Week column: "The idea of using clear threats of embarrassment, negative publicity and CIA-like covert tactics to get end users and their employers to 'comply' with license agreements is petty, childish, and counterproductive."

A lot of SPA members agree, and there's an easy solution: Spin off the anti-piracy program into a new organization whose identity is clearly separate from the SPA. (Or merge the SPA program into the Business Software Alliance, another Washington based group of software cops.) The budgets and staff are already separate, Wasch insists, so the surgery should be painless. And instead of making lawsuits against customers its top priority, a piracy-free SPA just might think of more productive uses for its time and money.

* Move to Silicon Valley: Industries that are highly regulated and taxed may need a strong presence in Washington, but software companies certainly don't. One of the SPA's most severe problems is that its staff has little hands-on knowledge of what's going on in their own industry. The SPA operates in a geographical backwater, and virtually none of its employees has ever worked for a real software company. (According to Wasch, two staffers once held jobs at America On-Line, and one at Apple.) In the absence of real-world experience, the SPA ends up getting a highly filtered view of the world from a handful of board members, special-interest proponents, and Beltway cronies.

Again, the solution seems obvious: Leave a small branch office in Washington, and ship the rest of SPA headquarters off to the Bay Area, the industry's heartland. Hire staffers with industry backgrounds, with broader knowledge and opinions about the industry. And encourage the entire SPA staff to spend more time listening to the people they're supposed to be representing.

* Do a few things really well: Although the SPA occasionally produces first-rate work--for instance, its annual salary survey--much of the association's research and standard-setting efforts have been superficial and off-target. The SPA failed to do its homework on such key issues as multimedia specs, bar code standards, financial reporting, and corporate licensing. Its flagship data collection program is notoriously unreliable in tracking emerging categories and upgrade sales. And smaller research efforts in such areas as tech support and company profitability have been essentially useless.

Much of the problem is that the SPA, perhaps inspired by its bureaucratic neighbors, seems more interested in justifying budget growth than in fine-tuning its core services. Wasch insists the SPA is merely responding to "member requests" when it keeps taking on new projects. But in fact many of the SPA's efforts compete with services that independent research firms and publishers already provide, or are pure boondoggies. (Our favorite is a newly-announced data collection program for Pakistan and India.)

What's the answer? That's a tough call. We'd like to see the SPA focus on quality and on strategic issues, but that's ultimately a question that the SPA's own board of directors has to face. If the board keeps endorsing scatter-shot programs, it's hard to see how the SPA's performance can get any better.

* End the consumer-business war: The SPA's single biggest internal issue is the simmering feud between consumer and business software companies. Consumer and education publishers rounded the SPA; business software developers now contribute the lion's share of current revenues. To keep the peace, Wasch and the board have tried to buy off the malcontents with a de facto quota system: equal numbers of prizes at the SPA awards ceremony, equal numbers of speaking opportunities on panels, balanced membership on the board.

But the compromises have failed to make the SPA a truly cohesive organization. One major issue is the SPA'S data collection project, which consumer companies insist should include videogame sales and more consumer-oriented sales categories, a proposal the business faction refuses to endorse. Electronic Arts, a rounding member, has already walked out of the SPA over this issue; other consumer companies insist they're ready to follow.

The solution, we suspect, is to acknowledge openly that the SPA really does have two major constituencies. Rather than prolong the feud over resources, it might make sense to set up two self-governing branches within the SPA, each with its own annual conference, its own research budget, its own dedicated staff. We wouldn't divvy up everything, because there are still plenty of common issues for a core SPA to address. But that cooperation needs to be voluntary. If consumer and business software companies find they can't work together and learn from each other, then it's time to ask why they belong within a single trade association.

Ken Wasch, executive director, Software Publishers Association, 1730 M Street, NW, Washington, D.C.; 202/452-1600.
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Title Annotation:Software Publishers Association
Date:Jun 25, 1993
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