Understanding Computers
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  When is an Upgrade Something Else?
When I was shopping for my first home, I was surprised to see how many listings mentioned upgrades. The idea of upgraded windows or an upgraded bathroom seemed bizarre. When we finally bought a house, I didn't upgrade the yellow13 litre flush toilet, I replaced it.
Software upgrades are supposed to be new versions of existing programs that work better or have improved features. Upgrades are often driven by market forces rather than the user's needs. Some so-called upgrades are actually to the user's detriment. After all, how much can you improve something that already works really well and never wears out?
Sadly, from the publisher's point of view, one way is to make it wear out. Some shareware updates do little more than cause the original, indeterminate version to expire after a trial period. Another unfortunate way is to make a new version of a program whose output cannot be read by the old version. Microsoft Access 2000 was perhaps the most notorious example of this strategy. Not only was Access 97 unable to open databases created in Access 2000, but Access 2000 automatically converted the old databases to the new, unreadable, format. Users were forced to upgrade in order to share their files. As an added whammy, Access was (and is) part of the MS Office suite and could not be purchased separately.
Other upgrades also appear to benefit the publisher more directly than the user. Microsoft's Windows XP and Office XP are largely the same as their predecessors, Windows 2000 and Office 2000. The most visible difference is that the products must be registered within 30 days or they stop working. Imagine buying a blender that stops working after 30 days unless you mail in the warranty card. On the other hand, software prices might be much lower in a world without piracy.
In the time honoured Detroit tradition, some publishers make the software bigger and fancier-looking while the core program, or engine, remains the same. The Linux operating system and the Netscape browser are examples of this kind of growth. It's hard to complain though, since both are freeware.
So when is a software upgrade really an upgrade? One measure is whether it enhances an application rather than replaces it. The free upgrades to Internet Explorer and Outlook Express fix well documented security flaws in those two applications. Another measure is whether the new version is clearly superior to the old. Most nerds agree that Windows 95, 98 and 2000 were improvements on their predecessors but Windows ME will best be remembered as the Edsel of operating systems.
Whatever ambivalence nerds feel about Microsoft, the company does offer many very useful free upgrades, patches, service packs, games, viewers and converters. Viewers can display but not edit common applications like PowerPoint. My personal favourite converter is the Office Converter Pack, which makes it possible for earlier versions of Office to open documents from the later versions. Check out www.microsoft.com/downloads/ for links to all their free stuff. And while you're on line, check out www.understandingcomputers.ca. We'd love to hear your suggestions for future topics.
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