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Version Therapy

Why a growing number of business managers are just saying no to software upgrades.

Finance chiefs know the drill well. A salesman for a software vendor, eager to convince a CFO to OK an upgrade to the vendor’s latest release, puts on a full-court press. The calls are endless, the promises grandiose. But the salesman’s arguments are well honed, persuasive. The new software addresses all the problems in the earlier version of the program, he says.

The new software incorporates suggestions from customers. It’s Web-enabled. The application will allow for a seamless transition to the next “major” release from the vendor, scheduled sometime in the next paleontological era. Eventually, the CFO relents to the pressure and signs off on the upgrade. The salesman remodels his den.

So what’s wrong with this picture? These days, a whole lot of software salespeople are going without the wood paneling. Indeed, business customers seem to be responding to software upgrades the way toll-booth attendants respond to large bills. Barbara Crane, vice president of IT at Aramark Corp., a Philadelphia-based outsourcer of food and uniform services, says there must be a truly compelling reason before she will even consider updating an application. “An upgrade under any condition would certainly not meet our business needs,” says Crane. “Each project needs to be weighed carefully.”

Crane’s wariness reflects an increasingly foul mood among purchasers of business software. Makers of such products don’t have far to go to figure out who to blame for this vitriol. Years of endless — and regular — software re-releases have soured many corporate executives on the virtues of upgrading. In some cases, corporate customers have found that much-ballyhooed releases are hardly upgrades at all—merely tweaks and fiddles to perfectly good programs. In other instances, upgraded programs have offered an overabundance of new features. “There are some software upgrades that just don’t seem compelling enough to companies in terms of value,” says Michael Silver, a software industry analyst from Gartner, a technology advisory firm located in Stamford, Conn. “And there are others where the change is so big that it makes the upgrade hard to do.”

The corporate reluctance to upgrade Microsoft Windows XP is typical of the problem vendors are facing. Microsoft released Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) in August 2004, flogging the operating system’s (OS) security updates, management tools, and bug patches. But according to a recent survey of 251 North American corporations conducted by Ottawa- based IT consultancy AssetMetrix, business customers are not exactly flocking to SP2. Only a quarter of the 136,000 XP-based computers operated by the respondents have been upgraded to SP2.

What’s more, 40 percent of the surveyed companies have a very low percentage of computers running SP2. That’s a telling statistic, considering the upgrade is free. “We have complained bitterly to Microsoft about SP2 because they included new features that we didn’t want,” says Crane. “We then had to turn them off, which meant additional development time for us.”

No Support Group

For businesses with hundreds or thousands of computers, installing even a minor upgrade (much less a sweeping revamp of a critical application) is far from a trivial matter. It takes time and effort to distribute, install, and, in many instances, troubleshoot upgraded software.

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