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Tricky Timing Is Key To Software Upgrades

THE upgrade announcement was upbeat. So I dialed the toll-free number and let it ring 10 times.

Second thoughts began crowding in:

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``This is going to cost $50.''

``The current version works fine.''

I hung up without ordering.

Computer technology moves so fast we can get carried away sometimes. If it's not new and improved, we don't want it anymore. It's at that point that we need to escape the upgrade hype and get a new perspective. Charles Gahr, an experienced computer user who doesn't jump at every new upgrade, writes: ``I try to leapfrog most updates by several years, then update only when major changes come about. I feel that even a home user needs some sort of loosely defined update practice.''

My upgrade strategy is similar: only do it when it really helps.

Sometimes that turns me into what Larry Lunetta, a vice president at Caere Corporation, calls a visionary. When the new version of the Ecco personal information manager comes out, I'll upgrade immediately, no questions asked. I use the program so heavily that new features will undoubtedly help. I'll be more cautious with the Paradox database program. It gets less use, so I'll snap up a new version maybe two months after it comes out. Sometimes the very first releases of a major upgrade have bugs that get fixed after several weeks.

Most of the rest of my system is what Mr. Lunetta would call a laggard. The Crosstalk communications program is a version behind the latest release. So is the Quattro spreadsheet program. I'm two versions behind on WordPerfect. And I still use Lotus Agenda, which hasn't been updated in years.

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When I do upgrade either software or hardware, I aim high - just behind the cutting edge. That's straightforward. Many Macintosh owners won't buy a new Power Macintosh model tomorrow. But if they need more performance, they'd be silly not to get one. The tricky part is the timing.

A year ago, I bought a 486-class notebook computer - almost the fastest portable machine at the time with the largest hard drive available. That machine today is probably $700 cheaper. But the 12-month productivity boost it has given me was worth the extra cost. On the other hand, my desktop - a four-year-old 386 - is a definite laggard. I've improved it along the way. But my software has gotten so complicated - and graphical - that the machine's delays have become far more noticeable. It's my biggest bottleneck.

So in a couple months, when prices drop a little, I'll invest in a new Pentium-based computer. It won't be quite the fastest model but something that will carry me into the next era of video- and audio-based computing. The venerable 386 will move to a less important role, probably replacing my 10-year-old IBM XT.

To some, an IBM XT will seem Neanderthal. But fustiness is in the eye of the beholder. Many of my colleagues are still productive with such machines. When WordPerfect Corporation looked at its base of users, it found many were still doing word-processing on XTs and 286-class machines. Their slower computers couldn't run the company's latest version, WordPerfect 6.0, so the software vendor is preparing to ship version 5.1+. The upgrade will run on slower machines but include some of the advanced features of 6.0.

Upgrades represent an increasingly important business. Bruce Miller, WordPerfect's research director, says some 40 percent of the company's revenue comes from upgrades. At Caere, some 15 to 20 percent of users typically upgrade to the next version. But Mr. Lunetta has high hopes that the upcoming version, OmniPage Professional 5.0, will convince up to one-third of its users to upgrade.

I'll probably be one of them. Laggard that I am, my OmniPage is three years old.

* Help upgrade this column. Send comments to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).