When it comes to business-related technology, there’s no bigger news than a major software release.

Witness the splashy celebration marking the consumer launch of Microsoft Windows Vista, the company’s first new operating system in five years, along with the popular Microsoft Office 2007 suite of business applications, in January 2007. Among other launch events, 16 aerial acrobats formed a “human billboard” displaying the Windows logo on a building high above Manhattan, Bill Gates made a rare guest appearance on a comedy show, and retailers across the United States stayed open overnight for shoppers wanting to be the first to obtain the new versions.

But while Microsoft and analysts have projected millions of sales for Vista alone this year, shoppers didn’t flood the stores that night -- and, as of this writing, haven’t done so since. For some, it’s a simply a matter of caution: They’re waiting out the flurry of patches for problems that inevitably come to light shortly after any new software release. For others, it’s a textbook example of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” principle: They feel that Vista’s predecessor, Windows XP, is working just fine right now, thank you very much, and they see no reason for immediate change. Even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged at the launch that many customers won’t upgrade to Vista until they need new computers, which will come equipped with the new software.

It’s not that the new operating system doesn’t offer some attractive improvements. Among them: a more secure version of the Internet Explorer browser that helps prevent “phishing” attacks, the new Windows Defender anti-spyware tool and integrated searching capability. On the down side, Vista -- which comes in five versions, ranging from “Home Basic” to “Ultimate” -- is a disk hog, requiring at least 15 gigabytes of free hard-drive space. In addition, the new system may be incompatible with some existing third-party software applications.

Ultimately, businesses and individual users must both weigh a whole host of such factors in deciding when to take the Vista plunge (as well as when to upgrade to Office 2007, with its new interface and many revamped tools and capabilities as well). That high-profile dilemma turns the spotlight on a bigger question: How do you know, in any case, when it’s time to switch software?

Following are several considerations to help you decide whether and when to undertake any upgrade:

Does the proposed upgrade offer genuine improvement? For instance, will it help make your business more efficient, more productive, and more secure? Will it enable new types of innovation or collaboration? Will it give you a competitive advantage?

Does it offer features that you actually want? If so, are those features easy to learn and use? Or will you be paying for additional capabilities that you’ll probably never need -- or at least won’t need for awhile?

Does the upgraded product have a track record? New releases often come with bugs and security holes; manufacturers then follow up quickly with patches and “service packs.” If you’re not in a rush, consider waiting a few months for the dust to settle and then investing in an updated version that addresses those post-launch problems.

Is right now the best time to upgrade? If you’ve got an important project in progress or a big deadline looming, you may want to wind up that effort before doing a software shuffle that could delay your progress. 

Do you have the necessary expertise for implementation?Can your own IT staff handle the job? Or do you need to hire a consultant or contractor? The latter choice adds significant expense -- but avoiding installation-related disruptions and down time may be well worth the investment.

Will the new software play well with what you’ve got now? Will it communicate and work with your existing programs? Will you be able to access all your current and past data? If not, you may need to consider upgrading other applications as well -- which is, of course, another expense.  

Do you need new hardware to support the new software? Even if your existing computers will run the upgraded program, it may be more cost-effective in the long run to upgrade everything at once. For instance, if you’re planning to license Vista for your current computers, but you also expect to replace those machines in the next year or so, it might make more sense to invest now in new PCs that will come with Vista already installed.

Is training necessary? You may need to train both your IT personnel and your users on how to use the new software -- and both efforts add costs.

Do you need to upgrade everybody at the same time? Running a pilot project for one group of users may let you pinpoint and resolve small-scale implementation problems before they become big ones. Rolling an upgrade out in phases can help minimize disruption.

If you don’t upgrade, will your old software still be supported? Most manufacturers provide technical support for only the current and, in some cases, the most recent previous version. For instance, Microsoft discontinued technical support -- including security updates -- for Windows 98 in July 2006.

The single overarching piece of advice for considering any upgrade: Do your homework. That will go a long way toward deciding whether, what and when to make the change.

For more information:

Microsoft Windows Vista requirements

Microsoft Windows Vista
Microsoft Office 2007    
Microsoft Exchange Server 2007