The Upgrade Cycle

Recently, Glenn Reynolds, a columnist for Tech Central Station coined a new phrase, "version fatigue." In his article, he describes a waning interest in software upgrades that seem to introduce less and less features that we want and make the things we do more and more complicated. Well, maybe not "more complicated," but software vendors have a bad habit of moving things around for seemingly inexplicable reasons. In the end, upgrading becomes a chore to be put off as long as possible. Though this may save money and time in the short term, it is not always a good long term solution.

In explication, most programs change incrementally. This means that if you stick with each upgrade, you generally don't face a completely radical shift. There are exceptions, of course. Most notably, Microsoft's latest version of the Windows operating system, Windows XP, is a ground up redesign of the Windows interface, its look and feel. However, even in this case, under the hood, Windows XP is not all that much different than Microsoft's Windows 2000 operating system, meaning that it functions almost exactly the same.

The problem is that all of the settings, buttons, and such have all been moved around or altered, making the upgrade feel less like a smooth transition and more like a train wreck. Oddly enough, this affects experienced users -- who used to know where everything was -- more than new users. However, there are fewer and fewer totally new computer users every day, meaning that for most people, upgrading to the new version of Windows will only be a pleasant experience to the masochists amongst us.

To further complicate things, though Windows XP is very similar to Windows 2000 functionality wise, it is completely different from Microsoft's consumer line of products, Windows 98 and ME. Windows XP is intended to be an upgrade to the consumer line, not necessarily to Windows 2000. On the positive side, there are a lot of ways to customize Windows XP and make it appear a lot like previous versions of Windows. However, doing so is beyond the skills of most computer users as it involves cryptic commands and poorly documented processes.

So, I can just skip it, right? Wait for Microsoft to realize the error of their ways? Not exactly. Each time a new version of a product gets introduced, the previous version becomes "legacy" software. This means that in a short period of time (usually a year or two), you will not be able to update the program as it will enter the dreaded realm of "unsupported" software.

You may think, "Well, that's not a problem. My computer already does everything I want it to." In this sense, however, updates include fixes for core problems that you may not have run into yet, patches for security holes which hackers and virus writers are searching for at this moment, and support for new hardware.

In regards to the latter, say I have modem which gets "popped" during a summer thunderstorm. No big deal, I tell myself. I'll just go out and buy a newer, faster one. However, the newer, faster modems aren't supported by my old software simply because they didn't exist when the software was written. Worse yet, the stores don't sell my old modem anymore because there just aren't that many people who need old modems.

Now, if I'm lucky, the local computer shop has a used one laying around their office that they got when upgrading someone else's computer. Or, maybe I can find one on the Internet just like I used to have. These are all definite possibilities, but in each case, they require extra work from me, stealing not just my business computer when I need it the most, but my time as well.

There are a lot of other problems, not the least of which is software compatibility. Will the new version of my financial software understand the accounts in the old version? When upgrading from one version to the next, this usually isn't a problem. If I skip a few though, it isn't guaranteed. As a result, skipping an upgrade or two might mean reentering all my customers and transferring their balance. That's a weekend's work for most businesses, a month's work for us, and more for some companies.

In all fairness to Microsoft, whose software runs on 95% of the computers in the world, the task put before them is nothing short of herculean. Despite this, they generally do a pretty good job from version to version. And in most cases, their reasons for changes are very good: the new Windows XP interface has been drastically redesigned to break down the barrier to entry for people who don't find computers easy to use. In this way, if could be argued that Microsoft has done more to eliminate the digital divide than the politicians who declaim on the same subject.

Additionally, Windows XP unifies two separate product lines, giving developers a common base from which to develop their programs. This means that you can expect more applications to "just run" -- and run correctly -- on Windows in the future, regardless of which flavor you have chosen.

So, as always it is a balancing act, both for software developers and consumers. The developers, under deadlines and facing ever decreasing margins, attempt to add features and increase market share while still accommodating the existing user base. If they make a mistake, change to much, the customers weigh the perceived need for the new features against the learning curve and cost.

In the end, we sometimes choose to skip a version. In this way, we vote with our wallets and send a clear message to the software developers, "Hey, you screwed up. I'm still a customer, but I don't like the direction you're going." Usually they respond, fix a few things, and make a few changes to the smooth out some of the bumps in the upgrade path. If they don't, then we're in between the proverbial rock and the hard place.

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