Forced Upgrade Definition

Forced upgrade is a term that is commonly used in the computer field to refer to the practice by some large software developers of pressuring users of their products into purchasing or leasing new versions. The meaning of the term is similar to that of planned obsolescence, which long been used by businesses as a revenue-enhancing technique.

This practice occurs because it can be enormously profitable for software developers that have some degree of monopoly power and/or have their users locked in. Monopoly is the situation in which there is a single seller of a product (i.e., a good or service) for which there are no close substitutes. Lock-in is the situation in which customers are dependent on a single manufacturer or supplier for products and services and cannot move to another vendor without substantial costs.

Several techniques are used by software developers to pressure their customers to upgrade to new versions including:

(1) Conducting massive publicity campaigns and aggressive sales efforts promoting the supposedly new and improved features of the new version.

(2) Stopping support for the old versions except for those willing to pay substantially higher prices for it. Support includes fixes for newly discovered bugs (i.e., errors in programs), security upgrades (to cope with new viruses, worms and other malware), new drivers and other software for use with new hardware, and assistance in solving problems that frequently occur with complex software (particularly the interaction among multiple programs).

(3) Introducing and/or encouraging other companies to introduce new software that is incompatible with the older versions. In particular, new application programs are sometimes designed so that they require the newest versions of operating systems in order to run effectively, if at all.

(4) Holding back on adding some already-developed new functions or features to new versions so that they can be added to subsequent versions of operating systems or application programs.

Forced upgrades can be very costly for users because of the need to (1) purchase or lease the new versions, (2) test and adjust existing application programs for compatibility with the new versions of operating systems and other application programs, (3) devote time and effort to retraining users and system administrators and (4) purchase new hardware to accommodate the new requirements for the upgraded operating system1.

Users often make major efforts to resist forced upgrades, and some are successful for many years or even decades. For example, numerous organizations around the world still use MS-DOS (which was originally introduced in 1981 and for which new stand-alone versions continued to be introduced until 1994) for at least part of their operations. However, resisting forced upgrades has been more difficult for other organizations, particularly those which rely heavily on the Internet, with its great exposure to viruses and other malware, and those that are rapidly growing and thus require new hardware (which might not be well supported by older operating systems).

An important step that users can take to avoid forced upgrades is to use software that is relatively resistant to planned obsolescence. This can be difficult for organizations that already have a large investment in other software. However, it is worth considering a gradual shift not only because it will start reducing vulnerability to forced upgrades, but also because of the substantial additional benefits that can be obtained2.

Free software is relatively immune to planned obsolescence and forced upgrades. This is software that is free with respect to both price and use (i.e., anyone is permitted to use it for any purpose, including copying, modification, installing on as many computers as desired and redistributing). Among the best known examples are the Linux and FreeBSD operating systems, the C, C++ and Perl programming languages, the Apache web server, the Firefox web browser and the OpenOffice office productivity suite.

The lack of a forced upgrade problem for free software is a result of the fact that there is no monopoly that could reap huge profits as a result of such upgrades (although there are certainly companies that could benefit, such as those that supply enhanced versions and related support services). Should a user desire to upgrade to a newer version, there are generally no licensing fees, although other costs can be involved, such as the need for testing, particularly the interaction with other programs. Pressure to upgrade to newer versions is also a result of the fact that support continues for older versions typically continues to be provided for free on the Internet.

1There is a widely held view within the computer industry that new versions of some operating systems are designed to encourage hardware upgrades in exchange for new hardware being optimized for new versions of the operating system.

2For a comprehensive list of benefits that can accrue to organizations, see 25 Reasons to Convert to Linux, The Linux Information Project, January 2006.

Created February 17, 2006.
Copyright © 2006 The Linux Information Project. All Rights Reserved.