Edit: They reached out to me on Twitter to offer me a free perpetual licence for SodaPDF. Arguably, that's what they should have done in the first place. I'll leave this post up though, to record that they eventually resolved this correctly, and to help others. Let me know in the comments if they do, or do not, offer you a perpetual licence. What they should do is learn from the experience, and put instructions to this effect on their homepage.
From time to time, I use this blog to warn people of software or companies that cannot be trusted. I don't do it too often (don't want the blog to become simply a catena of consumer issue whinges), and there's little to be gained (I doubt many people will see it).
But people do hit my blog posts from search engines, and it's always surprising how many people are looking for what I write when I report issues like this.
Today, I'd like you to meet a company called SodaPDF
The story starts with a company called Docudesk. They currently have an informative Wikipedia page about them, which tells you they were an established brand.
Today, there are many pieces of software, some free, for producing and editing PDFs. But some readers will remember the day when Adobe Acrobat had a near monopoly. Eventually, they opened up the PDF standard to allow readers other than Acrobat Reader, and that gave a space for other developers to write PDF writers too.
I first bought a software licence for Docudesk in 2006. I bought a licence for some software called deskPDF Professional, and it cost me $29.95.
In 2012, I upgraded, as they offered a new piece of software called "Desk PDF Studio", that allowed some PDF editing as well. I haven't got a record of what I paid, but it gave me a very useful tool.
In June 2016, I upgraded again. This one cost me £15, and brought me to something called DeskPDF Studio XE, a successor of the one I had before. I can't remember exactly what features I wanted, but I wouldn't have spent £15 for an upgrade unless it offered significant improvements.
What I didn't know was that, behind the scenes, the shift from Desk PDF Studio to DeskPDF Studio XE was a change of owner. A company called LULU Software had bought Docudesk. LULU owned a similar product called SodaPDF. Docudesk had 3 different editions of their software, and they chose to merge them into the single replacement I then bought, and this would be "powered by" the engine for their SodaPDF system (whatever that means).
It was only more recently that the DeskPDF Studio XE splashscreen started showing this "powered by" subtext, so I had no idea that this upgrade was part of that acquisition.
This finally brings me to SodaPDF. Now, the former websites of Docudesk and LULU redirect to that of SodaPDF. So it seems they've chosen to bring everything under the SodaPDF brand.
When I try to reinstall my DeskPDF Studio XE, the installer fails. The error says cannot resolve a hostname, which means that although it's an offline installer it needs to download components from the internet, and the website it's downloading from does not exist.
Given SodaPDF redirect browser traffic from the old Docudesk website to theirs, it would have been easy for them to host the necessary files on their servers, and redirect when the DeskPDF Studio XE installer comes knocking. Not to do that was an explicit choice. Even if I had got the software to install correctly, activation was required and would have failed.
I contacted them to ask for an installer that works, and here was their reply:
I apologize, but our company will no longer provide updates or any technical support for old versions of Docudesk software. I want to inform you that we have bought the company which formerly created the old Docudesk software. Kindly note that we acquired the company, not their products and do not have access to their customers' database. Thus, we cannot support their old products as well as we do not have any license keys that can be used in order to activate the program.
He doesn't explain who "we" is, given the "old Docudesk software" was DeskPDF Studio XE, which was first released when SodaPDF (the trading name of LULU Software) bought Docudesk the company. He's actually saying " we cannot support our old products".
This is not about the company being bought; that happened before the earlier software was released. This is about the company choosing to cripple the software people had paid a one-time fee for, to try to force them to buy software with identical features but operating on a subscription model.
He offered me a 50% discount on that subscription. Or I could have paid an eye-watering $99.49 for a one-time licence for a product made by their "partners", which believe it or not was actually 50% off the full price. I explained that I would not pay them another penny if that's the way they treat customers.
I had only paid £15 for the most basic set of features. There were other features within DeskPDF Studio XE that needed further licence fees to unlock (such as OCR, creating PDF forms, etc.) People who had paid for multiple seats of those advanced features could find themselves hundreds of pounds out of pocket.
All that happened was that a company regretted selling pay-once licences for their software. Not content with removing the ability for future one-time purchases, they took the decision to cripple the software people had already paid for. Note how the Facebook post above does not say that those who have bought it will no longer be able to use it; it only says it will not be readily available. There are now many PDF editors out there, and they should not expect customers they have so mistreated to choose them when looking for an alternative.
So how is it that an acquisition led to the software being crippled in this way. I finally found the villain of the piece, a company called Avanquest. It turned out that Avanquest bought LULU Software (and with it, SodaPDF) in July 2018. Suddenly the timeline all becomes clear.
- April 2016, LULU Software buys Docudesk.
- June 2016, LULU Software released DeskPDF Studio XE to replace the previous deskPDF Studio.
- July 2018, Avanquest buys LULU Software.
- November 2019, the new owners (Avanquest) pull the plug on supporting their old pay-once software.
So the poor ethics comes in fact from Avanquest. So who are they? They are the trading name for a French company called BVRP, trading on the Paris Stock Exchange under the name Clarinova (ticker: CLA on the Paris Euronext exchange). Avanquest has grown by acquiring US software companies.
(This reminds me of a company called Newfold Digital, formerly Endurance International Group or EIG, who bought up lots of small independent web hosting companies with excellent service and support. The need to maximise profit led to the reputation of each of these companies to fall quickly through the floor. Newfold are a public company.)
This is what seems to have happened here. Docudesk, an industry leader, got bought by Avanquest, that maximises profit after acquiring good software outfits. Just as it paid to know which other hosting brands were owned by Newfold, so it pays to know which other software companies are now owned by Avanquest, because poor ethics and treatment of former customers of Docudesk may well carry over to other brands as well.
It's hard to get a full list of brands, but they own AdAware, PDF Forge, inPixio, PDFescape as well as SodaPDF.
A Better Way to Do it
This is not how it has to be done.
I have been a customer of ViewRanger for a long time. They offered the chance to pay for small tiles of Ordnance Survey maps, so you can use just the map portions you need on a mobile phone. They were bought out by a company called Outdoor Active, who wanted to operate on a subscription model. They got their lawyers to draw up an agreement, and then reached out to all those who had paid once for certain features within ViewRanger, to offer them a way not to lose what they'd paid for.
That is how it's done. SodaPDF modelled how it's not to be done. What's sad is that Docudesk was a very good, longstanding and reputable company. Having bought them and worked alongside them for a few years, they then gutted the company and hung Docudesk's former customers out to dry. The PDF marketplace is now crowded with many vendors; choose one that will respect your purchase.
A Free Alternative
I'm currently testing out some free software called PDF24, that looks promising at doing everything I used DeskPDF Studio XE for. Maybe join me in trying it.