The Upgrade Train’s a-Comin’

There’s an unmistakable trend in software and it’s going to change how firms and users handle technology in the future. The trend is for far more frequent upgrades – often as part of a Cloud or subscription package — and the result is going to be a higher tempo of IT testing and user training.

Numbered are the days when you’ll sit comfortably on 8 year old software doing what you’ve always done. Coming are the days when your computer acts more like your mobile phone or tablet – with new software updates (including feature changes and additions) coming on a far more rapid schedule.

Why Is This Happening?

Well, the simple answer is because software companies have figured out that it’s better for them to have predictable, on-going, revenue and that when customers only buy their product once every 5-8 years they make less money and have more problems.

Financially if they can get you to pay them $10 a month, every single month, they’ll make more in the long run than if you only give them $250 every 5 years.

From a technical standpoint quite a lot of the support calls they get are from users who are either running very old software or who are trying to migrate from very old software. If they can bring everybody to a newer (ostensibly better) piece of software and get them to make small, incremental, regular, upgrades the thinking is that it will reduce support costs for them in the long run. A more homogeneous user base simplifies technical support.

There is also a benefit to being able to add new features and capabilities, as well as fix old bugs and problems, on a more aggressive schedule. Your software SHOULD get better, faster. Should.

From a sales standpoint there’s a certain segment of users who get excited about a faster upgrade tempo and that will create more buzz around the product. Also if you’re on a subscription plan you won’t have to come up with the large capital expenditures to upgrade. The upgrades will just be included in your monthly fee.

So What’s the Problem?

Well, the problem is that traditionally firms have upgraded software rarely and on their own schedule. You usually knew days, weeks or months ahead of time that you were going to upgrade and that meant you could test the software, train your staff on its new features and capabilities and roll the upgrades out during a period where you can afford to be a little slower. With this new model you’re going to have to be a little lighter on your feet and ready to upgrade within days or weeks, rather than months or years.

It also means it’s going to be harder to find and hire staff who have years of experience with the version of the software you’re using. If the software has only existed for 4 months, nobody is going to have 3 years of experience with it.

With a faster schedule of software updates you may also find that the occasional stinker of an update happens much faster too. That means while you may have less serious problems, they’re likely to happen more often.

Finally upgrades do, occasionally require other things to be upgraded. It may be that the new version of the software requires you to have more RAM or a newer version of the operating system. That means that you may be forced into other upgrades that you hadn’t planned to make.

What Do We Do About This?

With the new tempo of upgrades you’re going to have to be a little more aggressive. You’ll have to anticipate the changes as best you can, quickly test any integration or customizations and, very likely, give your staff more frequent training opportunities to keep them up to speed with the latest version.

Many services that do these upgrades WILL have the ability for you to “snooze” the upgrade so that you’re not as likely to just get blindsided by a major change on Monday morning when you’re under a deadline to get critical documents out. But you’ll have to be paying attention – generally the default will be to roll out the update, which means if you’re asleep at the switch and don’t affirmatively snooze that update you’re going to get the new version. Ready or not, here it comes.

And keep in mind that will only be a “snooze”. The new version IS coming, it’s only a question of if you’re getting it on Monday or you’re getting it a month from now. Companies like Google or Microsoft aren’t going to maintain dozens of back versions of the product anymore. You can buy a little time…but eventually you’re going to have to join the rest of the customers on the current version.

Not every upgrade is going to be a major change, of course. In fact, most of them will likely be fairly small things that you and your staff will just roll with. Nonetheless you’re going to have to be vigilant for which updates (and which specific changes) ARE a big deal for your firm. If you have an investment in custom macros or third-party plug-ins you’ll need to conduct ongoing testing to make sure none of those tools is going to break with the next update (and fix them if it does).

These new software practices are going to keep everyone on their toes. The firms that manage that ongoing change the best are the ones that will thrive with it.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    Regrettably, most software companies weren’t around when the ARPAnauts and Multicians were dealing with the problems that continuous maintenance caused.

    Just like maintaining a car, putting a new set of rings in your software opens the door to embarassing problems, like forgetting to put a new retaining clip in the wrist-pin and scoring the cylinder.

    The ARPAnet people had an automatic-fail-back process in their early machines, so that if someone blundered, the change would be reversed. I’ve not seen that kind of quality since, and certainly not on anything that ran on a PC.

    If the vendors don’t offer recovery from their blunders, you may have to invent it. Caveat emptor!

    ps: I was the guy who forgot a wrist-pin in Larry Ross’s race bike, and sure enough, scored the cylinder. I was younger then, you understand (:-))

  2. This is not new. In fact, for a lot of software, this has been going on for about 5 to 7 years such as Microsoft with Software Assurance and Symantec with its Gold or Platimum maintenance programs and so on.

    What is happening now is that businesses have been forced to play along and the scheme is now hitting its critical mass and there is no looking back.

    I like the scheme because it also is easier to budget and control versions from an IT management perspective. The big problem though is the compressed rate of change and IT people having to keep up with it.

    For a small size business of few to a few hundred, there is lack of automation tools to manage this and unfortunately it can be a lot of hands on, directly on the desktop upgrading and that is very counter productive. It is also becoming a nightmare to keep track of who is updated and who isn’t.

    Many of the updates that are constant cannot easily be pushed out and you end up relying on the end user to hit the “ok” button. Now one needs an “update awareness” campaign – another layer of work due to the scheme.

    Asset management software, patch management software and frequent physical checks of machines and their software using a long list is necessary now.

  3. Then there’s the small “feature” of the pushed update stream that the updates break the hooks used by existing programmes on the user side which are supposed to work with the updated program. Maybe the customer isn’t running the most recent version of that other programme for some good reason (which might not now work even if it was in place.)

    Maybe that’s just a minor inconvenience for entities having a responsive IT dep’t (their own or outside responsive support). But that’s not always the case, no?

    Of course, if it’s just some sort of current browser API (?) incompatibility then, of course, the user can switch to one of the other browsers, right? Assuming they know how. Or, say, roll back Adobe reader to the last version. Assuming they know how. Assuming they have the required permission. Assuming …

    Ah well, ain’t progress grand?

  4. Excellent article and really good points.

    In rapidly moving towards a SaaS (Software as a Service) model, there will be some real challenges for firms that are still operating with older and sometimes unsupported versions of various applications, but also functioning under earlier releases of Windows and other operating systems, As new features and functions are added, they may only work on the most current version of the OS and so there may well be additional costs in first upgrading the OS to take advantage of updated or completely new apps – particularly, as support starts diminishing for outdated OS.