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A Bad Case of Upgraditis

Matt Neuburg’s article on Now Utilities 6.5 in TidBITS-345 touched on an issue that is fast becoming a serious flaw in the way software is sold. The concept of "upgraditis" is infecting more and more software companies and threatens the stability, usability, and long-term value of software.

It used to be you could count on a major upgrade of a software program once every two or three years. Now it’s a year, and in many cases, less than a year. Usually, a major upgrade increases the program’s system requirements (RAM, power, storage, and so on), involves a new file format, potential incompatibilities with other programs, and yet another learning curve.

With all those negatives, it’s no wonder companies must push flashy new features in order to convince users to upgrade. Even worse, the upgrade cost may not be much of a discount over the street price or "competitive upgrade" many companies offer. I resent this tremendously. I support a product by purchasing a legal copy and faithfully sending in my registration card, and if I’m lucky, I save a $5 off the street price of the software! (Even sillier is the practice of many companies to charge you $10 shipping and handling on a $25 upgrade when you can go to the store and buy it new for $29.95.)

An excellent example of this trend is my copy of WordPerfect 3.0. I bought it for $99 a couple years ago, and it works fine (I don’t have a Power Mac). I don’t find any of the new features very compelling, but of course it’d be nice to have the current 3.5 version. But Corel wants $89.99 to upgrade! I might as well buy a brand new copy. (The competitive upgrade price is now $89.99.)

I rarely take the bait any more. I stopped upgrading After Dark three versions ago. I still use Now Utilities 4.0, Quicken 3 still works for me, and I never bothered upgrading Kai’s Power Tools or Bryce (the upgrades cost too much). Even my copy of FreeHand is at version 4.0 – though I probably will upgrade to version 7.

I see a few solutions. One is extremely low-cost upgrades for existing customers. (I’m talking $10 to $25 here, and just media or even online distribution – use the registration numbers as passwords – manuals can be extra.) My favorite idea is a subscription-based system, similar to how Metrowerks CodeWarrior is distributed. This would give the developer (and the user) consistent, scheduled releases, and it would relieve the developer from having to include all the hot features at once. The new features are phased in over a year of quarterly releases so the user isn’t inundated with a completely different interface. The user knows in advance they get a certain number of free upgrades, and after that they must resubscribe. [Some people have pointed out that subscription systems can be problematic if the company promises features that aren’t met, or if they ship buggy software to meet a promised date. -Adam]

These problems associated with software upgrading aren’t just mild complaints or isolated incidents; it’s rapidly becoming an industry-wide crisis. (Just look at the problems with upgrading Microsoft Office or Word 6.)

Software development is at a crossroads. Making software a commodity devalues the product. Developers must act now to preserve the value of their labor. If they don’t, users will have less and less incentive to bother purchasing legal copies and upgrading. Technology like plug-ins and Open Doc’s Live Objects will make this even more of an issue. (For example, is it acceptable to pay more for a plug-in or a Live Object than for the original program?)

As for me, I’ll stick with Now Utilities 4.0.

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