Here is an example of a confusing, muddled online purchasing experience.

It began well enough. I decided to upgrade to the latest version of VMWare Fusion 3 prior to installing Windows 7 on my Mac. I had heard that VMWare's virtualization offered faster boot times, better integration with the Mac OS, and best-in-class support for the 64-bit version of Windows 7. I started my journey by reading up on the new features on the VMWare site. Then I read about what would be included with my purchase:

VMWare Fusion step 2

I hesitated. Did I really need to pay $20 more? Was this indicating that VMWare intends to release version 4.0 within the next 12 months? Are they saying that, with the basic $40 upgrade fee, I can expect to pay $40 again within a year for version 4? And that paying $20 now will save me $20 down the road? That might be worth it, but I didn't have enough information to make the decision. Who knows? They aren't telling. They just throw it out there that it may be a good idea to 'protect your investment.' Nothing explicit is stated. In the absence of clarity, I decided to go with the simple $40 upgrade. I reasoned that the last point upgrade occurred more than 12 months ago, so I'm probably OK with the basic upgrade. I imagine many a consumer will opt for the 'protect your investment' path. I hope it works out for them. VMWare should more explicitly state what this 'protection' offers. As is, it seems like a cheesy ploy to make some extra cash.

On to the next step. Next, I'm presented with options to 'add functionality' to my selection.

VMWare Fusion step 3

This step in the ordering process is particularly frustrating. It's also devious. For $30 more, I could choose per-incident email support for one incident per year. By clicking on the link for this option, I received an explanatory pop-up message indicating that this would afford me email/phone support from a Technical Support Engineer. I would also get 'documentation, Knowledge Base articles and discussion forums through the VMware web site.'

Do I need this? I don't think so. I had just read on the previous page that my $40 upgrade fee comes with 18 months of free email support. And documentation, forums, and Knowledge Base articles are complimentary for all registered users of VMWare Fusion. So what does this 'added functionality' get you? Nothing that you probably couldn't figure out from the forums. And if you do need to send an email to VMWare to get help, you can do so without spending extra money. They claim target response times within 24 hours for all severity of problems. That's pretty good free support.

I say this step in the ordering process is devious because it's poorly explained, and I think deliberately so. The explanatory pop-up window is vague, and there's no link anywhere to the VMWare Support Options page, where all of this is explained in much greater detail (I tried to get there by choosing a 'Support' link located at the top of the 'Customize Your Order' page, but I was taken to a page entitled 'Buy VMWare Support.' Here, I was presented with yet another offer to purchase per-incident support).

Last point: the design of this page is such that the 'Add to Cart' button is clear and obvious, but the 'No Thanks - Proceed to Checkout' link is small and unobtrusive. I've seen this sort of thing in many places around the Web, as I'm sure you have. It's a subtlety designed to get people to spend more money, simply because many people aren't paying attention. This sort of thing is not customer friendly. It's customer hostile.

At any rate, I moved on. After I made my purchase, I was directed to a download page. Here, I was presented with yet another confusing choice: do I want to download the full or the light version?

VMWare Fusion step 6

Aha. It turns out the the light version only comes with VMWare tools to support the Windows and Mac OS. The full version includes support for a wide variety of operating systems. Why wasn't this important point mentioned in the first place?

I don't want to sound like an Apple snob here, but I don't have experiences like this when purchasing third-party software for the Mac. When I buy software, I expect high-quality software. And my expectations extend to the online presence of the developer: I expect the design and messages on the developer's Web site to focus on generating a positive customer experience through the entire process (to include purchasing and upgrading). I don't expect what I used to experience all the time when buying software online in my Windows days: vague descriptions, bundled 'complimentary' subscriptions, shifty designs to encourage click-through on money-making bits, and other clever marketing ploys that emphasize making money over concern for the customer.

Message to VMWare: this kind of nonsense does not inspire customer loyalty. I could pack up and move to Parallels. You should really treat me better.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I'm happy to report that the new version of VMWare works quite well. I'm happy with it.

If you do buy VMWare Fusion 3.0, be sure to download the free Take Control of VMWare 3 from TidBits. It's free thanks to sponsorship from VMWare. The Take Control e-books are great, by the way — I've purchased several and find them to be excellent references. They usually cost between $10 to $12 bucks a pop, so this is an exceptional offer.