Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Just because it's new doesn't make it worth buying

December 29, 2012

If you’re one of those businessfolk who buy new gadgets just because you can, you might want to move on to the food reviews now. I’m going to be talking today about when to upgrade devices or software.

“Because it’s cool!” isn’t on my list, just so you know.

Microsoft Windows XP, for example, is slated for demolition. It’s not going to happen soon—the current target date for end-of-support is April 2014—but it’s a watershed.

Windows XP, for all its faults, was one of Microsoft’s first Windows operating systems that really worked and delivered massive return on investment, so much so that its 10-year-old technology is still producing revenue on an estimated one-third of all computers.

At one time, it was nearly 50 percent of operating systems in use. It is so beloved that it’s still the operating system of choice despite not being offered for retail since 2008. Mainstream support, which covers consumer products, ended in 2009. Extended support for business will go on until 2014, when even that support will cease. After that, Windows XP is officially dead. Microsoft closes the book on it, and that’s that.

Throughout its life, XP was renowned for its stability and consistency. Compared with previous Windows operating systems, it was a marvel. I’m still running it today on multiple computers. It was easy to maintain, again compared with previous versions. But it suffered from several problems, the worst of which involved security.

Windows Vista was designed to solve that problem, but it had numerous problems of its own, from the bigger system demands to more rigid controls intended to prevent what Microsoft saw as copyright infringement. Vista came pre-loaded on Windows machines during that era or its adoption rate would probably have been disappointingly small.

Vista was officially Windows 6, so the next version was appropriately dubbed Windows 7. By Windows 7, we’re two Windows versions away from XP, and still there’s nothing in it that actually enhances business productivity. Today, we’re up to Windows 8, which has a lot of new things in it, including touch-screen capability. But there’s still nothing in it that will help any of us make more money.

New operating systems have to appear from time to time to keep up with other technology changes, but it’s a fallacy that each one is “better” from a business point of view. In many cases, the upgrade is seemingly painless because most people buy new computers with an operating system already on it.

In those cases, you probably have to just heave a sigh and go along with the program. But doing that always entails costs, such as learning curves and not being able to use older but still reliable peripherals.

In my view, something that causes problems without conferring considerable advantage is not a good investment.

I’m not down on new devices just to be cantankerous. When flat-screen monitors came out, with their smaller footprints, sharper images for my old eyes, and much less weight, I hurled my old CRT unit into a tox drop with nary a backward glance.

However, I know that many of my peers swap out phones, laptops, tablets and other things just because they can, and that’s fine. Somebody has to buy all that stuff. But if you’re doing it in hopes of being more productive, my advice is to pause and think about it first.

Upgrading to a smartphone to get a mapping app, when a paper map is just as good, isn’t smart business. My take is to always ask myself, “What can I do with this tomorrow that I can’t do today? And how much money will that ability make me or save me?” Maybe I can locate the nearest Starbucks, but will that enhance my earnings one penny? I doubt it, unless I have to find a whole bunch of Starbucks in the course of business.

I myself have two phones. One is a smartphone that I rarely use. Another is an old flip-phone that probably ran out the clock on its support years ago. But it still works great and does what I really need it to do: Make calls. It’s scarred like the old warrior it is. The smartphone is an indulgence that wouldn’t survive more than a hard drop or two. The flip-phone is my battle-hardened buddy. The smartphone is for impressing people.

I know that someday my old dependable flip-phone will go dark because its innards are too out of date and I’ll have to find something comparable, if it exists at the time. I know there are end points to any technology’s life. I just don’t propose to rush to meet them. I will wait for them to come to me. And then they have to earn their place on my desk.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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