Software Maintenance Fees May Not Be Invulnerable To Change After All

TECH DYNAMICS: Last Friday, June 25th, the US House and Senate reached agreement on a financial reform bill, which is likely to pass and be signed into law.* At first glance, this legislation has nothing to do with the IT industry directly. But buried in this bill is a provision regarding debit card fees, which could serve as a model for how end users of software could bring about a change in something that is very important to the economics of the software industry — software maintenance fees.

Now, software maintenance fees have been one of the givens in the software industry in perpetual license deals. Typically set at 18% to 22% of initial license fees, they are fixed in stone. An enterprise software buyer can try to negotiate a discount on a license fee; a really smart one can negotiate a deal where the maintenance fee rate is applied against the discounted license fee, not against the list license fee. But software vendors rarely discount maintenance fees. 

Why? Established software vendors depend heavily on maintenance fees for the bulk of their revenue. Almost half (49%) of SAP’s revenues and Oracle’s applications revenues in 2009 came from maintenance fees. Oracle’s middleware business earned 55% of its calendar 2009 revenues from maintenance fees.

And yet maintenance fees are one of the biggest sources of complaint from enterprise software buyers. Every so often this dissatisfaction breaks into the open. SAP faced massive client unrest when it raised maintenance fees for most customers during 2009. SAP tapped the biggest vein of resentment about maintenance fees: fees on old software. Old software is the crux of the problem with maintenance fees: It tends to be stable and therefore requires little support.

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