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Eric White

Eric White

Senior Solutions Architect, CTO

Having helped build the foundation for multiple start-up software companies before coming to Northwoods in 2004, Eric has a deep understanding of software system design and the software development process. Over the years, Eric has provided technical leadership for several of Northwoods’ largest clients. 

How to Determine if Your Software Has Been Orphaned (And What to Do Next)

February 20, 2023 | Eric White, Senior Solutions Architect, CTO

8 Minute Read

Imagine that your business was in the market for software that streamlines project management and tracks deliverables. You spoke with vendors and researched options for months to find the best fit. You finally chose an affordable option, made your purchase, and integrated the software into your business.

Six months later, none of the expected functionality updates have happened. Your team has run into costly bugs, and the vendor’s support team fails to respond to your team’s inquiries. The software you’ve invested in is essentially unusable, and you don’t know how to fix it.

You’ve experienced a bad case of orphaned software: Software products or solutions that their developers have abandoned. That means no updates, no dedicated support, and “too bad so sad” for the hapless software buyer.

In a market crowded with applications, software-based tools, and software developers, it’s all too easy to invest in a dying product or unsustainable solution. Here’s how to spot software that’s on its way to the orphanage and tips to help you select a new tool.

How Do You Know if You Own Orphaned Software?

If the vendor has gone out of business or discontinued the product, you have custody of an orphan. More often, and less obviously, the software’s developers have simply focused on another project. Larger software companies move developers from project to project often, as they staff up their highest priority products.

This can begin a vicious cycle. With fewer developers available to maintain select software, its usability and quality start to suffer. This can cause regular users to abandon the product altogether. As user numbers fall, the software execs pull personnel away to other projects. Thus forms a death spiral, leaving you with bare minimum updates or none at all.

What About Custom Software Solutions that Aren’t Products?

Evaluate custom solutions the same way you would an established product. The difference is that you own the solution, and the vendor simply built and maintains it. Consider the custom software abandoned if you quit funding its maintenance or the vendor cuts off maintenance services.

  • You might notice longer and longer time gaps between feature updates.
  • Another indicator: Advertising and marketing information about the product disappear from the vendor’s website and other communication platforms.
  • The vendor’s online support might disappear, either gradually or precipitously.
  • Your vendor might also send subtle signals that they want to break up with you through unreasonable price increases or a lack of response to support and feature enhancement requests.

You’ve Invested in Orphaned Software. Now What?

Although it’s frustrating to be in this situation, there is hope! Here’s how you can move on:

  1. Know Your Options
    Some caring developer might be able to adopt your orphan, if it’s a custom software solution written on a widely supported technology. A reputable software vendor could take over maintenance and enhancement or join your in-house team.

    If it’s a product, you might have the option to purchase the source code from the original vendor – some software contracts give purchasers certain rights to the source code. Still, it’s wise to explore alternative products before taking on the burden of maintaining and developing software yourself. 
  2. Know Your Contract
    If you  licensed a commercially available product, you likely won’t have much difficulty ending your subscription and moving on to a new tool. Now’s the time to be sure you know every detail (if you don’t already) of your contract with your original vendor.

    Your goal is to wind down the relationship without incurring extra costs. If your vendor has failed to meet any terms of the contract, you need to know which terms were violated and be ready to point to those failures. You might be able to terminate the contract without fees whenever you’re ready. If you can’t, it’s best to wait until the contract ends and plan accordingly.
  3. Start Exploring Alternatives
    Have a replacement in mind before you begin the process of eliminating orphaned software. Ditching existing software without a new solution can disrupt productivity.

    List the needs your orphaned software currently meets for your business, and gather feedback on missing features and common pain points of the orphaned application. This critical information will help guide you to replacement software that fully meets your needs.

    Armed with this information, you can explore options and reach out to new vendors. Sharing your list of needs with vendors can save both you and the vendor a lot of time.  
  4. Choose Carefully
    You and your team should take time to review new alternatives carefully. Looking back, what orphan warning signs did you miss? Make note of them, so you can spot those red flags in the future. When choosing a vendor to take over your existing software or implement new software, consider the following:
  • History: How long has the prospective vendor been providing products and services relevant to your needs?
  • Reviews: Is the vendor in good standing with the Better Business Bureau and other sources related to their industry?
  • Relevance: How do their software development services align with your needs? Request  examples of work that the vendor feels match the type of features and functionality you require.
  • Communication: Are they easy to contact? Do they listen to you and understand your needs? Do they clearly explain how they will meet those needs? Do interactions feel collaborative and respectful?
  • Character: Do vendor team members exhibit honesty and integrity?
  • Maintenance and Support: How do they approach ongoing maintenance? This is one of the most critical parts of the process. If you own the product, ongoing effort to develop features you require and to keep the application functioning during upgrades of underlying software and systems, both client and server, is a must. Vendors should understand and be prepared for this. If your software developer expects a one-time process with no further maintenance, your software is, for all practical purposes, orphaned on arrival.
  • Affordability: What are the vendor’s standard rates? Are costs in proposals broken down in a manner that’s easy to understand and free of complex pricing and hidden fees? Do their prices fit your long-term budget? Typical yearly maintenance costs are 15-20% of the initial development cost for custom solutions. Keep this in mind as you explore potential vendors.

When choosing a new commercially available software product, consider these additional factors:

  • Needs: How well does the product, straight from the box, meet your needs? Does it need to be modified to fully meet them?
  • Usability: Are the interfaces intuitive and clear? Do they feel quick and responsive relative to the activity being performed? Users will bring various devices to bear on these interfaces. How will they behave across a full range of devices?
  • Reviews (quality and reliability): Research what others are saying about the product. Look for reviews on performance, scalability, support quality and responsiveness, extensibility/flexibility, and surprise/hidden costs.
  • Performance/Scalability: The number of users, expected usage and amount of data to be stored and processed all figure in a product’s performance. A reputable vendor will typically ask about factors impacting performance and scalability.  If you aren’t asked, then ask them.  Either way be prepared to ask and answer questions related to performance and scalability.
  • Technology: Is the product built on widely supported technology? If your IT team will bear the support burden of the software, are they comfortable supporting the technology it will run on?  Some solutions require cutting edge or niche technology that is not widely used/supported.  For these, the focus should be on vendor reputation and experience in the technology area.
  • Documentation and Training: Does online documentation exist? Is it easy to find and easy to understand? Does the vendor provide product training (online courses, webinars, in-person or virtual courses, etc.)? These resources can ease your team’s transition to the new software.
  • Community Support: Have user forums formed around the product? Does the vendor provide online or in-person user group meetings?    
  • Costs: Account for costs related to:
    • Any modifications required to meet your needs and additional expenses associated with maintaining modifications when upgrading
    • Ongoing maintenance/subscriptions
    • Hosting
    • Migration of information from the old application to the new one.  If possible, consider taking on some or all of the migration effort with in-house resources to reduce costs. 

Choose a solution with an affordable price tag, but keep in mind that cheaper software can come with hidden post-installation costs. It’s worth investing in a slightly more expensive option if that option comes with better support and lower long-term costs.  

  1. Plan Your Exit
    Once you’ve lined up the new vendor and determined how to end your relationship with your orphaned software, start the transition. Get your team up to speed on the new tool; leverage every training and support resource the vendor offers ahead of the go-live date for the new tool.

    This can smooth the transition and position the new software for success in your organization. The transition period is a good time to win over the support of your team and larger company. You want them to understand why the switch had to happen and to see the value it will deliver.  

Final Thoughts

There are countless ways to solve whatever problem you want to address through a new software application. Software development is a competitive market, so you don’t need to rush into signing up after the first sales pitch. Take the time to fully consider options before investing. Talk to several vendors.

With a little research, you’re almost certain to find an actively supported, growing platform that satisfies your needs.

If you have orphaned software and aren’t sure what to do next, our experienced software development team can help you determine the best next steps. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us for help!