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  • Do We Really Need Software Upgrades?

    September 19th, 2007

    It’s a sure thing that few software companies would survive were it not for repeat customers. If you bought version one, they need to find some way to rope you into buying version two, and so forth and so on. If you get enough loyal customers, you don’t have to work quite as hard to attract new ones.

    Or at least that’s the theory.

    Now I understand why you might want to get a new car. The old one is wearing out, and the repair bills are now exceeding the monthly cost of buying or leasing a new or “preowned” vehicle. So you take the plunge. Besides, the auto makers have no doubt added some spiffy new features to entice you to drive one of their vehicles home to your garage. Not just the added safety gear, but more room, more horsepower, better fuel economy (even if that seems an oxymoron with a more powerful engine) — that sort of thing.
    Things are a little different with a personal computer, where, aside from the hard drive and its mechanical components, and perhaps the optical drive, there are few things that would wear out over time. Yes, logic boards and power supplies do fail, but the latter is fairly economical to replace.

    But PC makers — and that includes Apple, since it is a PC maker as much as it tries to draw a distinction between the Mac and the PC — want you to come back for more. So, like the auto makers, they make the products better, or at least faster, and supportive of newer technologies.

    The software maker leverages those new technologies and adds them to their products, which, of course, requires you to buy a new computer to get the best possible user experience.

    At its core, though, software isn’t going to wear out whether you use an application one time or a billion. Yes, the medium on which it’s stored might degrade over time, or become obsolete, but the software still has the same ones and zeros as it did when it shipped from the pressing plant.

    Of course, the application may not work with a new computer, either because it depends on an operating system that’s no longer produced and supported, or the hardware itself isn’t compatible. So, short if keeping the old, slow, dated computer, you buy a new version of that application, and thus the circle of life continues.

    However, some companies abuse the privilege of keeping your business, by using excuses rather than new features to entice you to upgrade. Take Office X, the first version of Microsoft’s software suite compatible with Apple’s Unix-based operating system. Microsoft exacted a full upgrade fee for the privilege of buying a product that was, in large part, a revision designed strictly to be native to Mac OS X.

    Oh yes, they did throw in a few crumbs that masqueraded as important new features, such as the ability to perform multiple selections within a document. That’s a capability Nisus Writer and other applications have possessed for years.

    Of course, you can rag on Microsoft all you want for pulling that stunt, but they were not alone. Quark Inc., which at one time never met a customer they couldn’t abuse, did essentially the same thing with the first native Mac OS X version of QuarkXPress. Again, they added a few token features to justify taking your money.

    I could call Quark’s upgrade price a steal, but you might take it too literally.

    Now we are patiently awaiting for Office 2008 for the Mac from Microsoft. Rather than just provide native code, they are touting a new feature, the ribbon, regurgitated from the Windows version, Office 2007, but with a Mac-friendly veneer. Supposedly, it’s designed to make it easier to discover the power of Office, but didn’y Microsoft’s Mac BU say the very same thing when they delivered a palette for formatting your documents several versions back? They also used the same term, “discoverable,” so I suppose they could call the ribbon “more discoverable”?

    However, I’m a little in the dark about how a ribbon is fundamentally different in function from an application’s toolbar. The pictures at Microsoft’s site aren’t all that illuminating in that respect.

    I’m also curious as to why it took four years for Microsoft to deliver that update, assuming, of course, that Office 2008 does arrive on time early next year. That’s just about the time it has taken Apple to build two major operating system upgrades — and that assumes Leopard will appear in the stores next month.

    At the same time, Apple’s operating system team ported Mac OS X to Intel processors, and also to the ARM processors used in the iPhone and iPod touch. Somebody ought to teach Microsoft a lesson in efficiency.

    Of course, as Microsoft has already discovered on the Windows platform, a lot of potential customers may wonder just why they need to buy another Office upgrade? Will it make them more productive, more efficient, or whatever? Or will it just make the software company wealthier?

    Then again, you could raise the same questions about Apple, Leopard, iLife ’08 and iWork ’08. As Apple’s products continue to mature, selling new stuff to old customers has to become a lot more difficult.



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