Reverse the Upgrade Curse

by Chris Howard May 04, 2006

Who’s got a budget, or any form of restricted finances? Most of us. And who’s place of employment is similarly constrained? What about your educational institution—either your own or your kids?

A friend teaches at a local high school where they have Macs with GarageBand 1, but can’t afford to upgrade. As a result her students will only see GarageBand 1 on the Macs, but at home on their PCs, have a good chance of using the latest Windows alternative, such as Acid Music Studio.  So they’ll start comparing the latest Windows software to the nearly three year old GarageBand version 1. This of course is not a fair comparison but it’s what happens. Now lets not digress into a discussion about which is the better music creation software, because that’s not the problem at hand.

The issue is keeping Macs up-to-date so that users will not have any reason to criticize them, or the software, for being inferior. And this is particularly important in educational institutions, where Apple has the greatest chance of creating new Mac users.

My friend’s story is not unique. From many news reports around the world and online forums, the upgrade curse seems to afflict educational institutions more than any other organizations. Maybe because education represents a larger market for Apple, or maybe because Mac users are students who tend to be more outspoken. The root of the problem though is budget constraints, a problem that seems greater in educational institutions than most other organizations.

If you bought a Mac three years ago, you’d have had to fork out for three upgrades of iLife and two of OS X, not to mention other software. In an organization, let alone an educational institution with very tight budgets, that is a big hit to have to argue for each year when proposing your budget. Of course it is a problem for PCs as well as Macs, although there has been some conjecture over Apple’s charging for incremental updates of OS X. Upgrading software is a budgetary curse. And, on top of that, once in three years, the memory of computers will need upgrading too.

Macs have a small advantage over PCs. Older Macs, in my experience, run the latest OS and applications better than their peers in the PC world. A three-year-old PC looks, feels and behaves older than an equivalently aged Mac. Some PC zealots will jump up and down about that statement, but they’re also the same ones who keep their PC finely tuned, with every latest patch* and they probably dust and polish the CPU fan each week to maintain optimal cooling.

Why isn’t the problem worse for PCs?
Good question. Shouldn’t this issue afflict PCs even more? It would but this is a vendor problem, not actually a software or OS problem. So when someone says “Crappy computer. Not going to buy one of them again”, what do they buy next time? A different PC. They switch vendors but they rarely switch to Apple. Now if it’s Macs they were complaining about, what happens then? They switch to PCs. An unhappy Mac user can’t swap Mac vendors. (This is why Microsoft is doing so well and why it may pay Apple to license OS X. Switch PCs as much as you like, Microsoft still gets a cut).

So even though it’s the old software that’s causing their angst, people blame the computer itself. If a person switches from Macs to PCs, or decides never to buy a Mac because of a bad experience at school, the loss of marketshare is more significant as a percentage of sales for Apple than it would be for Microsoft. Apple cannot afford to have people bad-mouthing Macs. Consequently, Apple should be looking for more ways to overcome the upgrade curse.

Overcoming the upgrade curse
In my role as IT manager, I took up software subscription. This is a more expensive way to keep your software up-to-date, but not significantly so. Besides keeping your software updated, there are two particularly important advantages:

1) Budgeting. Once you get it in, you’re covered for three years (or whatever the term). You know your costs for the next three years as they have been pre-approved (management can’t change its mind). Trying to get upgrades in the IT budget each year can be a real bugger to get through the budget review committee. Whereas subscriptions are good, because management actually like knowing budgets three years in advance. You get brownie points for forward planning and you don’t have the annual bun-fight.

2) Licensing is automatically kept up-to-date. This is a great sales pitch when you’re selling the subscription model to management. Having your licenses up to date also brings peace of mind if you’re the one supporting the computers.

Does Apple provide any software subscription? Not that I’m aware of. Maybe it’s hidden deep within the system, and you don’t hear about it until your account manager mentions it. But Apple should be providing this and more. It should provide a complete package—computer, OS and Apple applications—all under some type of subscription agreement. The software components should come with upgrades for the life of the agreement and there should be a memory upgrade at, say, the half way point of the life of the agreement. All of this would of course be factored into the price, but spread across the term, smoothing the bumps out of the budget.

There’s only one stick in the mud with this model: Henrico County, whose denizens chose Dell computers because they were $20 cheaper per unit, apparently without considering what they were getting for that $20. That is a sobering reminder that whoever is proposing an IT budget will have to fight hard for a subscription model to be accepted, as it will probably be more expensive.

But that’s better than having to fight every year for software, OS and hardware upgrades. Because with that model, you end up getting screwed by management who changes its mind about letting IT keep computers up-to-date. And then you get your users complaining about crappy computers, and worse, crappy Macs.

* Apple should run a “Get a Mac” ad about patches and other maintenance.


  • You can get three years of “Software Maintenance” for most Apple software. In the Apple Store, click on Small Business under “More Stores” on the right; then click on “Software Maintenance” under “Business Services.” It’s not easy to find, but it’s there.

    planetmike had this to say on May 04, 2006 Posts: 23
  • Being “up-to-date” is a pointless exercise, designed to keep managers looking good and the computer/software industry execs rich. It has VERY LITTLE to do with productivity or safety or usability. Bug fixes—YES. Upgrading your OS every year? NO. I can’t believe how silly this whole article is. A software subscription is just another way for the computer/software industry to pick your pocket on a recurring basis. It’s just like the federal income tax! They take your money before proving that they deserve your money.

    Aurora77 had this to say on May 04, 2006 Posts: 35
  • “Being “up-to-date” is a pointless exercise, designed to keep managers looking good and the computer/software industry execs rich”

    Aurora77, to a large degree I agree with you but it’s hard to convince others, especially IT-centric clients of your point.

    They are largely swayed but marketing hype and flashy sales demos.

    The fact is that we can *say* what we like but we *do* what we believe - and I am writing this to you on Tiger! How about you? What OS did you write from? Well done if it was anything other than Tiger or XP.

    Chris, I face the similar problem daily in my job.

    Thankfully, as I work mainly with schools, deals have been struck with both Microsoft and what can loosely be called Apple here in NZ and these deals help immensely.

    This deal means that OS upgrades are free for schools and iLife 04 was part of the deal as well. This is a great deal for the schools!

    But you’ll notice that it’s now 2006 = and some people wrongly assume that they can just put iLife 06 on their old machines because of the deal made a couple of years ago.

    Not only is that outside of the agreement of the licence (read illegal) but it’s also a pretty bad decision to run iLife 06 on a two year old mac with the RAM it came with! Of course the deal applies only to software and NOT hardware!

    The problem really shows up when I visit clients that aren’t schools. They have to pay for every new version of OS X or iLife that comes out and so generally don’t bother.

    Compare the schools (where the upgrades are free) to the businesses and you’ll find that the schools have a much more unified feel across (sometimes) hundreds of computers where as small and medium businesses are running everything from OS 9 to Tiger.

    David Czepanski had this to say on May 05, 2006 Posts: 25
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