MY FRIEND BEN came to the office with this tale of life in the slow lane.
He'd been using WordPerfect for years, with no complaints. One day he ran into a problem with a research paper his wife was preparing. So he dug into the back of the manual and called WordPerfect's help line.
One of the company's 562 friendly technical support people answered the phone and tried to work through the problem with him. Nothing they tried seemed to help.
Finally, the tech support rep asked what version of the program Ben was using. Ben said he was using version 3.0
A gasp on the other end of the line.
"Three point oh?" the rep said. "I can do version 5.1, and 5.0, and 4.2 and even 4.0. But 3.0? That's way before my time. Hold on a minute. Maybe I can find somebody around here who remembers it."
While he was on hold, Ben had visions of his rep making an emergency call to the WordPerfect Rest Home, where a nurse found some creaking old-timer and wheeled him up to a battered PC, whereupon was loaded the last remaining version of WordPerfect 3.
"I'm not criticizing them," Ben said. "They were great. They finally found somebody who knew 3.0, and they figured out what I was doing wrong.
"They also told me I should really consider upgrading to a newer version. I didn't even know there was a newer version. It's not the money they want for the upgrade -- they're very reasonable. It's just that I'm happy with what I have. I don't want to learn something new.
"But I guess I'll have to," he laughed. "What happens if I run into another problem and the old codger who knows Version 3 dies?"
Ben is a bit prone to exaggeration, but his problem growing more common as the microcomputer software industry matures. Major publishers introduce new versions of existing programs every 12 to 18 months.
There are two reasons for frequent updates. First, publishers try to stay ahead of the competition. It's the American Way.
Second, updates are profitable. That's also the American Way. By eliminating the middle man, a publisher can make more money selling you a $75 upgrade than it did when you bought the $300 original.
For power users, updates are generally welcome. But they can pose problems for people who have gotten used to the bells and whistles of the previous version.
I've been using a splendid database program called Reflex for years. A while back, Borland International introduced a major update. The new version was much better, but whoever wrote it made one unwelcome change. Instead of hitting the slash key to initiate a command, I suddenly had to hit the ALT key. I swore a blue streak for a month till I got used to it.
Businesses are increasingly troubled by upgrades. The price of switching hundreds or thousands of employees to a new version of a program can be outrageous. The price of the new software itself is only the tip of the iceberg. Installing the program and teaching people how to use it can double or triple the cost. WordPerfect is a good example. The program has about 60 percent of the IBM-compatible word processing market. Its frequent upgrades have spawned an industry of consultants, computer retailers and colleges who train and retrain WordPerfect's legions of business users.
Another danger is that a new release may have some "undocumented features," or even bugs that can ruin your day.
I recently bought an update to Publish It, a friendly but powerful low-end desktop publishing program. The new version treats special characters, such as boxes and bullets, differently from the old one. I knocked off 50 copies of an old flier and sent them out the door before I realized they had odd characters in the wrong places.
Sometimes an upgrade can be ruinous. Ashton-Tate, which once owned the high-end database market, wound up in serious trouble when its release of dBase IV proved intolerably buggy. It has taken the company a year to fix things, and thousands of users have switched to other products.
More and more often, longtime users find themselves shut out of new releases because they require more memory or faster processors than their predecessors. The most prominent example is Lotus 1-2-3. Version 3 of Lotus won't run at all on older XT-style PCs, which still make up about half the computers in service today.
The biggest update in history is just around the corner. Next year, Microsoft Corp. plans to issue a major new version of DOS, the disk operating system for IBM-compatible machines.
Unlike previous versions, which were marketed through computer manufacturers, DOS 5.0 will be sold directly to the public. By most accounts, it will be the DOS users have been waiting for. It will be friendlier. It will allow PCs to take advantage of more memory, and even allow rudimentary multi-tasking.
Even so, the thought of millions of users around the world switching to a new version of their PCs most important underlying program is enough to make me shudder.