Spam, spam, spam. Digney York, a Vienna, Va-based general contractor specializing in hotel renovation, was getting inundated by it. Pop-ups, too.

So Ann Versteeg, chief financial officer of the 25-employee company, took action, having anti-virus and spam-stopping software installed at the company’s offices. While Microsoft’s basic utility software is “adequate” for most things, says Versteeg, “in the areas of virus protection, anti-spyware, and anti-spam, we use third-party products.” WinZip and Adobe Reader are other programs that Digney York has installed. “Microsoft doesn’t offer an equivalent to these,” she notes.

Do you need to buy utility software for your business? For many businesses, the answer is "Yes."

Microsoft's Vista offers additional utilities, but…

Just as a car needs a mechanic, a computer needs utility software to keep it running in tip-top shape. The right utility software can make your business’s computers run faster, protect them against spam, viruses and other security concerns, and customize them to meet your business’s unique needs. The operating system’s utilities package just isn’t comprehensive enough.

“Operating systems come with a basic set of software, but, like I said, they’re basic,” says Gary Chen, analyst of small and medium-sized businesses with the Yankee Group, of Boston.

Chen acknowledges that Vista, Microsoft’s newly released operating system, does offer more utility than its predecessor. Vista includes Windows Defender spyware, transfer wizards, reliability monitors, and better backup imaging for quick data recovery. But Chen doesn’t see small and mid-size businesses breaking out of their typical upgrade cycle to buy Vista, even for the utilities. “Most [small businesses] will wait nine months to a year to see if the improvements really play out,” he says. “And even then, they won’t be buying it just for the security.”

And even if Vista is better at the basics, it still doesn’t offer WinZip or Adobe --  staples in most offices. Moreover, there is a breathtaking range of customized utility software out there tailored for business use. A search of online retailer’s business utility software offerings turned up over 400 items, including hundreds of security options, voice-command software, and backup products.

Beware of freeware

There are hundreds more options available as free downloads, everything from mouse-drawing functions to enhanced printer/photocopying programs. But most are targeted at the consumer market, notes Chen. For those freeware options with wider applications, business users should question how free they really are. Be sure to read the fine print, as many licensing agreements only allow personal use of certain software, or permit 30-day trials only. Remember also that the customer service available for a free product is likely to be limited at best.

Assuming you can use these free utility software programs for your business, Chen notes that free downloads are impractical to all but the smallest companies. “If you have a couple hundred computers to maintain, you can’t be downloading something onto each one,” Chen says.  Meanwhile, purchased business utility software is often a one-time-only installation that functions across an entire office network.

So, to keep your computers running their best, assess what your specific utility software needs are, and go shopping. Spending a little money now on utility software might well be worth it in the long run.