Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Computer Updates: Courses of Action

December 2001

By Mike Gould

"But I just bought the *&@#$! thing!"
"Just?"
"Um, well, three years ago, but look at it: it's brand new!"

This is what I hear whenever I gently suggest it may be time to update some piece of computer gear. But sometimes we must gracefully surrender the tried and true and embrace the new and shiny. Why? Because Bill Gates and Steve Jobs say so. Sorta.

Economics 101
To examine why this is, we must remember some of the basic truths of Western Civilization:

There are more technologists alive today than all the scientists living throughout History.
These folks need to eat, so they think up and invent stuff.
We buy it, encouraging them to make more.
Every time they make something, they improve it.
Everything depends on everything else.
Clear so far?

OK, so if gizmo A works with software 2, and you improve A, you have to improve 2. This is the Law of Unrelenting Upgrades, and this is what fuels our economy, most of Reality Itself, and pays my paycheck. Thank you very much.

Introduction to Industrial Arts 212
Case in point: PDF's amok. One of my clients is a major publisher of a very important local business publication, and his clients send him information, sensibly enough, as PDF files. PDF (Portable Document Format) is generally our friend (see my article "Pretty Darn Friendly", available online at: http://mondodyne.com/b2b/smbiznet.41.shtml). The problem is that he has Acrobat Reader 3.something, and people are sending him stuff generated with 5.latest, and the silly things won't print. In order to upgrade to Acrobat 5 he needs System 9, but then some of his older applications won't run unless they are updated, and then he needs more RAM, and some of the updates won't work together unless you wear red on Tuesdays and... you get the picture.

(Actually, we may be able to get around this by upgrading just the Acrobat Reader, not the whole package - Jim, call me in the morning.) Everything depends on everything else; you upgrade one thing on your computer and you find yourself in the Cascade of Dependent Software, followed by the Clash of Compatibility, which can end up in the Heartbreak of System Replacement. Not to mention the Anguish of Making the Support Person's Boat Payment.

Intermediate Computer Psychology 320
Now, I generally counsel hanging on to computer gear until you start having problems with it, or for 3 years, whichever comes sooner. By problems, I mean you start getting attachments you can't open from people with newer systems than you have. If you are sitting in your basement writing novels, you can probably keep your system for as long as you can still get toner for your model of printer - it's the ability to swap files with others that'll get you in the end.

The model in the world of big business is new computers all around every 3 years. The rationale is that newer gear is cheaper to support, runs the latest software better, and is generally at least twice as fast as the gear it replaces. You can upgrade the RAM in your old box until you are blue in the wallet, but you will still be pumping ones and zeroes through a ticker running at 6, when you could have one that goes to 11. As time can be computed in money, minutes spent drumming your fingers while you wait for your spreadsheet to do its thing is dinero down the drain. Computers have gotten so cheap these days that a complete replacement is a better idea than a piecemeal upgrade of drives, memory and the like.

I should mention that I am as hesitant as everyone else when it comes to upgrades. But I have gotten better - I'm on my 4th serious desktop unit, and the times between successive units are getting shorter and shorter. My current rule of thumb is to update when the new one is twice as fast as the current one, which means I'm waiting for the Mac G5's due in January. But I digress.

Advanced Evolution 440
The 4 danger signs of encroaching obsolescence:

You need a piece of gear that has a plug that doesn't match what is on the back of your box.

Examples: USB, FireWire, Ethernet.

People keep sending you stuff that doesn't open, even if you have the same application

Example: Microsoft Word.old having problems with files from Word.new.

A piece of gear you just bought has software that won't run on your system.

Example: Digital Camcorders with video editing.

Your kids have better gear at home than you do at the office.

Solution: Ask them and then go out and get what they use.

But keep in mind that new systems are no panaceas, and usually usher in a whole new set of problems. For this reason I usually advise clients to keep their old systems up and running until the new ones are stable and meeting deadlines.

Year after year, the new stuff gets better, faster, and cheaper. Now if I could just find a way to upgrade my brain...

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