To upgrade or not upgrade? That is the all-too-frequent question

‘If I’m honest I just don’t think this is Windows 10-compatible.’ (with apols to Ritchie & Thompson) Peter Hamer, CC BY-SA

The question of whether or not to go for the upgrade or stick with the devil you know is an increasingly common contemporary dilemma; the lure of new features against the threat of potentially disabling a device that plays an important role in our lives.

For example, Apple iPhone users who were quick to upgrade their phones to iOS 8 got burned by bugs. In fact many cynics see “point-zero” software versions (eg, 8.0) as nothing short of testing releases, and wait for later minor updates (eg, 8.1) to iron out the problems.

But even this behaviour can’t explain how Microsoft’s venerable Windows XP operating system, introduced in 2001 and officially retired in 2014, has grown its market share against more recent versions.

Desktop operating system market share, Jan-Feb 2015. netmarketshare

The problem for software and hardware developers and technological giants such as Microsoft, Apple, and Google is that despite technology’s constant, rapid advancements many users are happy with what they’ve got. Unintentionally this makes these firms’ task much harder.

Microsoft Windows is 32 years old – businesses have used Microsoft products and applications built to run on them for decades, and they expect backward compatibility. Developers want those using their products to stick with them as new versions come out, which means data created with older versions must be accessible by the latest version.

The update rat-race

While for home and business users the trade off is often between features or convenience and cost, for software companies the issue is the cost burden of supporting and updating not just the current but older versions too. This is why most will declare end-of-life on their products past a certain age. Commercial software developers want to sell you new versions, and developers of all kinds would prefer to be able to focus on improvements and new additions, not the needs of a shrinking group of users wedded to increasingly out-of-date software.

When Google announced it had stopped supporting Android versions prior to 4.3, it was making this point. There are already two more recent versions – 4.4 and 5.0 – and the costs of providing continued support and updates for old versions is a drain. On top of that, older versions may not support new technology or standards (for example for faster internet access technology, better sound or video). Backporting these features into older versions can be costly, time-consuming, and often impossible. Better to persuade handset manufacturers and consumers to upgrade.

Microsoft has this problem on an enormous scale, with its products running what is probably billions of computers and devices worldwide. There have been four subsequent versions (Windows Vista, 7, 8, 8.1) and Windows 10 will arrive soon, but 15 years old or not, Windows XP is still common despite its limitations, and appears in embedded systems such as cash machines and point-of-sale terminals.

For some organisations not upgrading may be a matter of cost, but for others it’s the risk of disruption to daily business operations – particularly if key applications built for one version of Windows won’t play nicely with another. Having the latest version may be “fun”, but when the business is on the line, it’s a case of if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.

Well now, that sure sounds expensive. dragonicefire, CC BY-SA

A work-around for the upgrade cycle

If you’re content with what you have then the eternal upgrade cycle can be avoided for many years. But if cost is the issue then there are alternatives – free and low-cost alternatives that provide functionality without the hassle.

The obvious examples are free or open source operating systems such as Linux. Since the arrival of Ubuntu (a version of Linux) in 2004 it has also become more user-friendly rather than merely a tool for experts and server administrators. It’s possible to run Linux on much cheaper, less well-equipped computers than required for Windows or Mac OS X and still enjoy the benefits of the current technological generation.

It’s also possible to run really old software using desktop virtualisation – software that allows you to run one operating system within another, as if it were just another application. Alternatively many emulators imitate older operating systems or computers – DOSBox emulates DOS, the text-based precursor to Windows, and others emulate old Macintosh computers, 8-bit home computers, and all manner of video game consoles or arcade cabinets.

The update cycle can be a constant churn – driven by the bottom line of the companies involved rather than the utility and value offered to the customer. But as sure as night follows day, better hardware and software will come along and we all jump on. The question is, how long will you wait?