Darel Rex Finley in 888

Upgrade? Maybe Not

2010.10.02   prev     next

UPGRADING your OS (or other base-functionality software) has some obvious downsides. It takes time. It might cost money. It might break things that are working fine now — “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the saying goes. And all this goes in spades if the country is still in a bad recession with no clear end in sight, and you’re running a business that’s barely getting by.

So if you’re going to upgrade, there had better be some pretty good reasons. What might those reasons be? Maybe the upgrade offers critical, new functionality that your business could use to its advantage. Or maybe it offers substantial performance improvements that will help your company’s software execute tasks in a more timely manner.

But if not, then the downsides of upgrading are quite substantial. For example, once in the past few years I had the misfortune to work for a medium-sized company, XYZ Corp., that made a web-browser-based product. Many years before I came to work there, XYZ had made a command decision that they would develop strictly for the Internet Explorer (IE) browser. We would develop for IE, test against IE, and if anyone used another browser, and the product worked, that was great — but if they complained that it wasn’t working, we would immediately tell them to switch to IE. If they said they didn’t like IE, then we would say, “Use IE to run our product, and your browser of preference to do everything else.” That would shut them up.

A few years before I came to work at XYZ, the web standards movement had gone into full swing, but XYZ didn’t care. They figured they had the web standards issue all solved — Microsoft certainly isn’t going away any time soon, and so everyone can just use IE. Case closed. I guess it never occurred to the fine folks at XYZ that depending so heavily on Microsoft might be a bad thing even if Microsoft didn’t go away.

Then IE8 came out. And wouldn’t you know it: XYZ’s product had all kinds of difficult-to-solve problems running under IE8. And of course XYZ was hosed, because they couldn’t just decide not to upgrade — their own customers would inevitably upgrade to IE8, and then what would XYZ say when those customers started complaining? And they couldn’t just switch to web-standards-based browsers, because so much of their product had been written in very non-standard, IE-specific ways (just as Microsoft hoped, of course). I spent a large portion of my time at XYZ trying (often vainly) to solve mysterious IE8 issues, while under constant pressure to do a full day’s new-development work on top of that. Mercifully, I was able to escape to a better job, and left XYZ to sleep in the bed they had made with Microsoft.

My current employer uses Microsoft technologies, no doubt — but their product is written in Java, and so long as the customer can run any Windows-based platform that executes the Java runtime, all is good. And so I, as a developer, am using a Windows XP machine. Which is just fine with me. It works.

Reasons To Upgrade?

So when I heard Lance Ulanoff of PC Magazine on The Tech Night Owl LIVE With Gene Steinberg, arguing that businesses really should upgrade from XP to Windows 7, my ears perked up and I listened carefully. Here’s what I heard:

  • IE9 won’t run on XP.

  • XP is “old.”

  • XP is “antiquated.”

  • XP crashes. (It does?)

  • Businesses running XP are “stuck in the twentieth century.”

  • Businesses running XP are akin to businesses running MS-DOS, that are “terrified” to upgrade because they “don’t know how.”

  • Businesses running XP think it will “cost too much money” to upgrade.

  • Businesses running XP are “doing things by rote.”

  • Businesses running XP “aren’t innovating any more.”

  • Businesses running XP are “just holding onto the past because they’re terrified of the future.”

  • Businesses running XP are “scary.”

  • Businesses running XP will find that, “at some point, you just can’t drag it into the future.”

  • Businesses running XP have to upgrade to work “smarter,” not keep working “the way they have for many, many years.”

  • Businesses running XP have to upgrade because “change is a part of life. ... You have to embrace change ... and stop being afraid of the things that you either are unfamiliar with, or you don’t know at all.”

  • Businesses running XP aren’t seeing “the value beyond what you can see. And Windows XP to Windows 7 ... is that kind of situation, where you can’t step back and just say, oh, I don’t know what it’s gonna do for me, I assume it’s not going to do anything.”

  • Businesses running XP need to realize that “the days of customized software for business really ought to end.”

  • Businesses running XP are “not efficient. They’re going slow.”

  • Businesses running XP need to become “competitive. You wanna be competitive? You need to be running the latest stuff.”

In other words, I heard a whole lot of vacuous blather that didn’t contain any real reason to upgrade. Oh, wait. IE9 won’t run on it. That’s right. But what if you don’t care whether IE9 runs on it? What if you’re doing fine with IE6 or IE7? (Or even IE8?) What if you’re using Firefox or Safari or Chrome?

And XP crashes — that was a reason. But in my experience at my current position (using XP on my development machine) I haven’t had any OS crashes at all. And isn’t that a big reason that so many companies upgraded to XP when it came out — it was very stable? (And it became even more stable with each Service Pack.)

Here’s Ulanoff explaining why businesses shouldn’t think that Microsoft is just trying to get more money from them:

And a lot of times they’ll tell me, oh, I don’t wanna update because Microsoft tells me I need to, because they just want to do it because they want to make money. Now, obviously Microsoft’s a business; they do have to make money. ... But that’s not the only reason they innovate. ... They’re not rolling out updates for the sake of updates. ... Internet Explorer is a good example of why companies need to innovate to stay ahead. ... We’ve seen that [IE has] not kept up. Internet Explorer 8: decent browser, but I’d rather use Chrome. Chrome is faster ... leaner, smarter. Well, Microsoft looked at that and said, I think it’s time for us to start over. We have to compete. ... That’s what — I’ve seen, at least — they’ve delivered in Internet Explorer 9.

Now, Chrome runs just fine under XP. So does Firefox. So does Safari. But not IE9. Why not? Pretty easy to guess. Far from being the example of innovation and improvement Ulanoff was presenting, IE9 is a perfect example of exactly what those companies told him: Microsoft is just trying to make us think we need to update our OS, when we really don’t. We can just use Chrome. Or Firefox, or Safari. Or even an older version of IE.

Once upon a time, when Vista was still known as Longhorn, it was going to have fantastic new features — like a database-in-a-file-system, for example. But then those ideas got scrapped. Why? Who knows. Maybe they were too much of a divorce from the long-reach, backward compatibility that’s the only real reason anyone uses Windows. In any case, Vista proved to be little more than a bunch of hardware-ravenous, flashy UI glitz designed to make Windows look superficially as nice as Mac OS X to the typical consumer.

But businesses don’t give a crap about that. They never have. That’s a big part of why Windows has always done so well in the business world.

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