Shelfware costs U.S. companies $12.3 billion, survey of guesstimates shows

Real problem of unused licenses measured only approximately in new poll

A penny saved is a penny earned, especially if the penny is one of trillions wasted on software no one ever uses.

According to a poll from software vendor 1E software, companies in the U.S. waste $12.3 billion per year on maintenance for software no one ever uses.

IE is trying to sell a new asset- and license-tracking software designed to limit waste on shelfware, so its motives aren't pure. Its survey methods weren't terribly precise, either, but the poll does make a good point.

The critical result comes from a question asking respondents if they agree they have more than $100 worth of unused software installed on each PC. Four out of five said yes; even more said they pay for licenses for software that isn't even installed.

The average value of unused software per PC was $414.50, not including shelfware, the survey found.

That probably overstates the case a bit; asset managers regularly complain that business-unit managers order software for everyone who might need to use it, rather than carefully determining who really does need it and re-evaluate that need regularly. Business unit managers often consider this a waste of their time.

The estimate also doesn't seem to take into account enterprise licenses that might let business units give everyone a copy of the app whether they need it or not.

The estimate only refers to maintenance costs, not the original acquisition cost, which makes the number a little more realistic.

Most companies don't do a good job of tracking real use of software compared to theoretical use – giving employees access to an app based on job description, for example, not what the actually use to do their job.

Most also don't do a good job of retroactive license evaluation – checking every year or six months to see what apps each employee actually uses so they can grow or shrink their license counts appropriately.

Some are starting to get better control by streaming some apps on demand rather than installing them. That method is more popular than full virtual-desktop installations, but it's still far from the rule, even in process-intensive, budget-minded organizations.

The caveat is the method and motives of both sponsors and participants:

The poll is based on 500 surveys of IT people at companies with 500 employees or more. The per-PC waste estimate was an educated guess in each case, not a calculated average for one department, or an average of waste in all departments, or even an audit of one person's PC.

The question didn't go into whether "unused" meant "never launched," or "not launched in an average month because I only need it during end-of-quarter book closings."

The sponsors are a little iffy as well.

In addition to IE, co-sponsors included the International Association of Information Technology Asset Managers and Federation Against Software Theft (whose goals you'd think dovetail in many ways, but forked-tongue in a lot of others).

All three sponsors has a set of its own agendas for a study like this. Corporate asset managers – the most likely to have been willing to take the survey, or even be identified to take it – tend to overstate the underuse case as well, even if only from frustration at the resistance of business unit managers who can't be bothered to help out a little to save the company big money.

The result is that the cost-per-PC 1E puts on waste from licensing isn't reliable enough for calculations.

It is enough – both in size and in the percentage of respondents who agreed licenses were going to waste – to use as evidence your license-tracking needs to be tightened up and that you could save a ton of dough by doing it.

Just don't use the number to print up project T-shirts or anything. Wouldn't want your outfit to turn out to be a joke because the real number at your company turned out to be far lower – or far higher – than the collective guesstimate from 500 strangers.

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