The buzz these days among many computer insiders is about the upcoming releases of upgrades to Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office.


Windows Server 2003, an operating system designed for computer networks, was scheduled to be released in late April. Office 2003, combining word processing, spreadsheet and other programs, should be out this summer. And the successor to Windows XP, code-named Longhorn, will likely be released no earlier than a couple of years from now, but already it's being written about in the computer press.


Anytime major software like this is upgraded, it again brings to the forefront questions about the desirability of upgrading your own software. When does it make sense for a company to upgrade? What problems can upgrading cause? To answer them, "do a cost-benefit analysis," says Al Cole, president of the Independent Computer Consultants Association (


Among the benefits are new features. Using company promotional material and software reviews, rank the new features by their importance to you or your organization. Another benefit is compatibility. If clients, suppliers and others you work with are using the upgrade, you may need to as well in order to seamlessly exchange data with them.


A third benefit is continuing to receive support. Software companies typically provide technical support and bug fixes for only a limited time. Jerry Dennis, who runs a handyman contracting business in Dryden, New York, is among many who feel this is unconscionable. Imagine a car dealership saying it won't service your car unless you trade it in for a newer model.


Microsoft started phasing out support for Office 97 two years ago, and with Office 95, your only choices are to search around Microsoft's Web site yourself, ask questions online of fellow users or use a consultant.


But feeling compelled to upgrade is a computer reality. "You should always upgrade when the software vendor stops supporting your current version," says Jan Klincewicz, a computer pro who has worked for Hewlett-Packard and Compaq.


Then there are the often significant costs of upgrades. The cost for a single user to upgrade to the latest version of Adobe Premiere for the Mac is $140, Corel Designer $200 and Microsoft Project Professional $500. Sometimes, upgrading software requires you to upgrade hardware as well, such as a computer's memory or hard drive. You should also factor in the time it takes to install the upgrade and, particularly for organizations, the training that's often involved in getting users up to speed with the new features.


The wildcard is uncertainty about whether the upgrade will go smoothly. Sometimes, software upgrades can cause other software or hardware peripherals such as printers or scanners to stop working with the upgraded software. Sometimes, upgrades overwrite files that are shared among different programs. Other times, you need to upgrade other software programs and software "drivers" for your peripherals, though these other upgrades may not be available for weeks or months after the release of the original upgraded program.


"Upgrading Windows software can be risky because of the potential breakage," says Tushar Samant, a software developer in Chicago who uses Windows and Unix software. On the positive side, technology in Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 is designed to help prevent third-party software upgrades from causing other programs to stop working.


Still, if you are an intrepid "early adapter," it makes sense to scout out any compatibility issues and the availability of other upgrades before making the upgrading plunge for core software. Finally, the upgrade itself may be buggy. Early upgrades to Netscape and Internet Explorer had problems. With more mature products, upgrades are typically  much more stable.


For these specific reasons, many people don't upgrade their operating systems or office suites until the release of the first service pack, which typically includes bug fixes not caught earlier and additional upgraded peripheral drivers.


Organizations are especially cautious, and many defer upgrading until the cost benefit is clear. If the upgrade involves software that's crucial to your organization and spans many employees, such as an accounting or human resources system, it can pay to use a consultant who has done the upgrade before.


With their new features, upgrades can not only be productive but also fun, a bit like buying a new car. But don't upgrade just to get the latest and the greatest. Take stock of your needs and scout out available information first.


Maybe the best advice of all is "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." "If I'm satisfied with the way software is working, I stick with it," says Barry Kutner, who is an ophthalmologist in Yardley, Pennsylvania.


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book "Straight Talk About the Information Super-highway." He can be reached at or