Tech Audit

On Software: Move It or Lose It?

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It’s an essential question: When should you adopt software early? You could be betting your practice whichever way you go. And with new versions of major software brands being released, there’s a lot now to tempt you to bet the firm, if not the farm.

Let’s improve your odds by discussing some guidelines on when to rush in and when to fear to tread:

• Adopt early when a program appears to solve a spe­cific problem you are having. Adopt late when things appear to be working well or new software offers only marginal benefit. Some would advise not buying versions of software ending in 0, but version 3.0 of our billing software had a feature we wanted, so we bought it. Unfortunately, 3.0 was full of major bugs.

When the next version was released (we’ll call it 4.0), we purchased it without hesitation because we needed to get rid of 3.0. Few others were anxious to buy 4.0 because of the miserable past experience. But the company had learned its lesson; version 4.0 was solid.

• Be careful when old applications come out on a new operating system. At best they may be suboptimized rewrites; at worst, they may be short on features.

The move from DOS to Windows was a major, expensive reprogramming job for most software vendors. In one accounting program, the Windows version couldn’t be made to do things the DOS version would. The typical response from technical support: “Why did you downgrade from DOS to Windows?”

• Moving to a new operating system can be a major effort with some significant losses, but it can be worth­while.

Windows was a major improve­ment over DOS, so upgrading the operating system was desirable, even if upgrading applications that were working was chancy. When Windows 98 arrived, it was a clear improvement over what preceded it (which was inherently flawed). It was a good move to adopt early. But Windows 98 had its own flaws. Moving to Windows XP early rewarded users with a solid interface and operating system.

So what to do now about Vista? The new Microsoft operating system seems superior to what it succeeds, but XP works well for most people. There is no need to move quickly, particularly when all your key applications are working well.

• Large firms don’t have to be lumbering adopters. Big firms will say they take their time because a mistake has huge ramifications, that even a $15 upgrade costs $15,000 when there are 1,000 desktops.

But there is a smart way for any firm to test out early adoption, and it is easiest in larger firms: Buy one copy of the new Microsoft Word with its innovative menu system and see if the innovation is worth the upgrade on a program already working for you. Do the same with Vista.

In your evaluation, don’t forget the cultural adjustment of doing some things differently, the compatibility risk with respect to programs that work with older versions of the software, or clients’ desire to exchange files with compatibility. When communication is your business, you must be certain you are not only talking to yourself.

• Constantly re-evaluate your technological weak spots. Identify the primary technology problem your firm would like to solve, the No. 1 software feature missing from your lawyers’ quivers. Then see if something exists that might help. Consider the budget risks and the failure risks, as well as the possible reward.

Risk of any sort is cost. That includes the risk of doing nothing. You can take a chance with technology, but make it a measured chance. With planning, common sense and communication, you can avoid the pitfalls, but not the chase.

David Beckman and David Hirsch are lawyers in the firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa. Contact Beckman by e-mail at [email protected] or Hirsch at [email protected].

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