Watchfire Flips the Bird

Here’s another example for the continuing saga of companies using EULAs to give their customers the shaft: Watchfire, the company behind the popular Bobby Web accessibility testing package, is using the EULA for their new Bobby 5.0 release to camouflage a major change to the way the software is licensed, and to deny refunds to customers who buy the product without knowing about the licensing shift. How do I know? I’m one of those customers.

I’m the accessibility testing officer for a Web development and strategy consultancy. As such, I’ve relied on Bobby for many years to help identify and resolve accessibility problems with sites. Bobby is a tool that was originally developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), a non-profit dedicated to expanding opportunities for people with disabilities. However, last August CAST sold Bobby to Watchfire, a for-profit company, with promises that Watchfire’s greater resources would allow them to improve Bobby more than CAST could.

CAST had offered two versions of Bobby, a Web-based version for a quick check of one page, and a desktop Java app that could check an entire site in one pass. Naturally, for serious use, the desktop app was the way to go, and I happily used CAST’s Desktop Bobby up through the last version, 4.0.1. When Watchfire sent us an e-mail this month announcing the release of a new, supposedly much-improved Desktop Bobby 5.0, I upgraded right away. (Early upgraders, like me, only paid $99; the list price of the software is $299.)

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this “upgrade” had removed a core feature of Desktop Bobby. Earlier versions had allowed you to generate an accessibility report for a site, and then export this report as a set of HTML files. For me, this was a critical feature; it allowed me to serve as a central resource for our company, testing each of our sites as they neared completion, and then sending the report to the manager of each project so they knew what changes needed to be made before releasing the site. In version 5.0, however, the report export functionality was completely removed — you can only save reports in Bobby’s native format. (There is a way to force Bobby to output the results as raw XML, but then you have to write an XSL Transformation to turn that XML file into something a project manager can use; and to even get the XML you have to hack your system’s Registry, which puts this option even further into the “you’ve gotta be kidding” category.)

When I contacted Watchfire about this situation, I was told that this was a deliberate business decision on their part — they felt that letting one user run reports for several sites was costing them potential sales, so for version 5.0 they decided that every user who wanted to view a Bobby report would need to have a copy of the software.

This is a very significant change in the licensing terms for Bobby. Previously, when we planned for the cost of accessibility testing software, we planned to purchase one copy of Bobby. Now, Watchfire’s new policy meant that we would instead have to buy up to ten copies of Bobby, increasing the cost to us from $299 to $2,999 — hardly a trivial increase. The worst part, though, is that Watchfire makes no mention of this change in the license anywhere in their promotional materials for Bobby 5.0. When we made our upgrade decision, we didn’t know that upgrading to 5.0 would mean an eventual tenfold increase in the cost of the software — as far as we could tell the license was the same as it had always been, and the export function had not been removed. When I explained that a tenfold increase in the cost of the software seemed excessive, they told me that if I wanted to export accessibility reports, they’d happily give me a $99 credit towards their enterprise reporting product — which starts at a cool $50,000.

See the problem? It’s a classic bait-and-switch — selling me one product, and not telling me until they had my money that I was really getting something else.

Here’s the topper: when, in frustration, I asked Watchfire’s sales personnel if they’d just refund my $99, since I didn’t get what I thought I was paying for, they told me that they couldn’t refund the money since they had no way of knowing that I had really un-installed the 5.0 software. When I asked how they could justify that since they had never revealed the change in the software and its license until I paid for it, they told me that they had disclosed that change — in the EULA that was presented when I installed the software.

That’s right, as far as they’re concerned putting wording in the EULA about the changes constitutes disclosure, even though you are not presented with the EULA until you’ve paid for the software! Think about this for a second — they claim that:

  • you can’t know about the changed license until you pay $99 to get the software and read the EULA;
  • once you’ve paid the $99, you can’t get it back, period (hey, they don’t know if you’ve uninstalled it!).

So, in other words, their policy for Bobby is that you are essentially paying them a non-refundable $99 just to get the information you need to determine if the new Bobby is for you or not — and they throw in some software for free. (How big of them!)

Now, this whole fiasco began when we received an e-mail from Watchfire urging us to upgrade to the new 5.0 (an e-mail which also did not mention the changes). Wouldn’t that e-mail have been the right place to tell us about the features they’d removed from Bobby? According to them, no: they dismissed that crazy talk by saying “we couldn’t put it in the e-mail, nobody reads those e-mails anyway.”

Yeah, and everybody reads the EULAs…

So, since it looks like I’m never gonna recover the $99 without dragging Watchfire into small claims court, I thought the least I could do was warn other people who care about accessibility issues that Watchfire will cheat you, and they won’t even apologize when they do it. Over the years, Bobby has rightfully earned recognition as perhaps the most high-profile accessibility tool on the market. It’s a shame that Watchfire’s business staff are so clueless and greedy that they can’t bring themselves to deal honestly with customers, and live up to that legacy.



May 8, 2003
1:34 pm

The Commercialization of Web Accessibility

A trackback ping to the Maccessibility article on Slashdot’s security program which excludes blind users brought me to the blog of Jason Lefkowitz. And on Jason’s site, I found a very interesting account of his experiences with Watchfire — they’re

John Knight

October 29, 2003
6:53 am

The recent ‘Attitudes to accessibilty’survey (by John Knight and Marie Jefsioutine), cites this commentary.

Chris S

November 25, 2003
6:31 pm

We just encountered exactly the same issue while running an accessibility report for a website we recently developed.
It is for reasons like this that proprietary companies drive customers to search for or develop Open Source solutions:
We will remember this behavior by Watchfire when we are looking for Accessibility testing software next year.


September 29, 2005
9:20 am

Argh, I really wish I’d known about this before buying Bobby 5.


May 31, 2006
9:00 am

You can right click on the results, copy the source & save locally as a html file. Then view that in internet explorer, and save the HTML. Not easy, but you do get something everyone can read.

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4:58 am

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