Software upgrades are the golden geese of the industry Do you really need the latest version of that spreadsheet?

Personal computers LZB

March 16, 1992|By Michael J. Himowitz | Michael J. Himowitz,Staff Writer

A few years ago I bought a copy of Borland's Quattro Pro spreadsheet.

It was easy to use and far more powerful than anything I really needed, since I rarely do anything more sophisticated than perform simple calculations on columns of numbers.

Last year I got an upgrade notice offering Quattro Pro Version 3 at a ridiculously low price. Version 3 offered even more bells and whistles, including fancier graphs and better printer support.

What the heck, I figured. Newer is better. I always figure newer is better, which is why people who sell software all have me on their "A" mailing lists.

Who cares if I'd never used a fraction of the features of the old Quattro? I sent a check, and in due course Borland sent Quattro Pro 3. I put it aside for a while, figuring I'd get around to installing it on my harddisk the next time I needed a spreadsheet.

Of course, the next time I needed a spreadsheet, we were in the middle of negotiating for a new house, and I was in a hurry to work up some mortgage comparisons. I didn't want to bother messing around with the new version of the program, and the old one worked just fine.

The same sort of thing happened five or six times over the next few months. I was comfortable with the old version. It did everything I wanted, and I never got around to installing Version 3. It sat there on the shelf in the box. It's still there. In fact, I never opened it.

This week I got another upgrade notice. Quattro Pro 4 is ready. It's newer and better. Faster and more powerful. Great graphics, too. I salivated and started to reach for the checkbook.

I'm not alone. Upgrades have become a big business for software publishers. The first sell is always the hardest. If they can keep customers coming back for more, they'll have a steady income stream as the years go by. Inexpensive upgrades are also a good way to keep you from switching to competing products that enter the market at a lower price.

Realizing that they've found a golden goose, publishers have made it easier for you to spend your money on upgrades. In fact, they've turned upgrading into a sort of charade.

Not long ago, most software houses required you to register your original program to get a new version at a reduced price. Worried about protecting their retail margins, they wanted to make sure that someone who didn't have the program couldn't get a new version at the upgrade price instead of paying full retail.

Now the big names, such as Lotus, Microsoft and WordPerfect, are offering easy upgrades through retailers. Just bring in proof that you own an older version (usually the cover page of the manual or an original diskette), and you can get the new one at a bargain basement price.

They're not too choosy about this. I upgraded my version of Lotus' Ami Professional word processor by faxing a copy of the cover page of my old manual to a discount house in Texas. I imagine anybody who could beg, borrow or steal a manual could do the same thing.

While they won't admit it, publishers don't really care any more. While they'd love to get their share of the $250 you'd pay for a

new program, they're happy to take their cut from the $129 "upgrade" fee, because once you're hooked, you're likely to stay hooked.

They're also offering something new called "competitive upgrades" to steal other companies' market share, as well as tie-ins to get you to buy other programs they sell.

For example, after years of thumbing its nose at the Windows market, Lotus has finally come up with a Windows version of its 1-2-3 spreadsheet. While 1-2-3 dominates the DOS world, most Windows users who have spreadsheets are using Microsoft's Excel.

To keep 1-2-3 users in the fold, Lotus offers its DOS customers the Windows version of the program and the Ami Professional word processor for $279, which is about half the street price for the two programs.

When I upgraded my Ami Professional a couple of months ago, Lotus was willing to throw in the Windows version of 1-2-3 for what amounted to pizza money -- both programs for $140. The deals seem to change from week to week, so it makes sense to shop for the best one. Even after a company stops advertising a promotional two-fer, some retailers may have bargain upgrades in stock.

The competitive upgrade is particularly hot in the Windows market, which is where publishers see the future. Essentially, a lot of the big players will offer you a chance to switch from an old version of your word processor to a Windows version of theirs for $100 to $150 -- about half the cost of buying their program outright.

This is one of the reasons the software market hasn't followed the downturn in hardware sales. People are buying a lot of software, and they're getting it cheaper than they ever did before.

Of course, this has its down side. I now have a perfectly acceptable version of Quattro Pro. And a newer version of the same spreadsheet sitting on the shelf. Not to mention Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows, which I haven't had time to unpack, either. And of course, an offer for Quattro Pro 4 sitting on my desk.

I haven't decided whether to buy it.

MainLan revisited: In a column a few weeks ago, I reviewed MainLan Easy, a simple and inexpensive network for small groups of PC's. Apparently, a lot of people are looking for this kind of solution because I've had numerous requests for information about the company. For information on MainLan products, write MainLan Inc., 1215 N. Highway 427, Suite 135, Longwood, Fla. 32750.

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