Swiss businesses ponder software updates
Many software companies are presenting new versions of their products at the Basel computer fair Orbit, which is currently attracting specialists from all over the world.
Switzerland is among the countries with the highest level of investment in new or upgraded software applications.
Software producers find the Orbit fair, which exclusively targets business customers for the first time this year, an easy sell. When it comes to replacing software with newer, improved versions, the Swiss market is hard to beat.
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest stands in hall 1 of the Basel fair that houses software exhibitors is Microsoft. But unlike other producers, the US giant has surrounded itself with a cluster of related exhibitors - software engineers and business consultants.
While Microsoft Switzerland tries to sell the new office operating system Windows 2000 it introduced seven months ago, related service providers are advising customers whether to buy it. Others offer their services in installing Windows 2000, or "migrate" their system as the professional jargon goes.
The clients are leading personnel in the Information Technology (IT) departments of companies. "The first question they ask if they should migrate now, or if they should wait", says Adrian Gut, marketing manager of Herwig Meier, a software engineering firm.
Gut tells prospective customers that the most important thing is not to save money in getting expertise during the planning phase. "Many specific applications are likely not to work with Windows 2000, so tests and analyses have to be made which can take up to six months", he says.
"In the end it may be right to go ahead, or it may be wise to wait", he adds. "But I always advise customers that, whatever they decide, they should change every programme and application in one go, at the same time."
Stefan Christian of the business consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers also stresses the importance of carefully planning a changeover. "If a company wants to go into e-commerce, the quicker it installs Windows 2000 the better", he says.
Windows 2000 is also suggested by consultants if a company wishes to de-centralise, if it wants to be more flexible in using its different units and if mobile employees need to have the same access to office infrastructure as those working in the office.
But Christian says he often gives the advice to wait for 12 months or so. "If a company has only recently installed Microsoft's last operating system NT4, it obviously needs to get the return on that investment first before upgrading the system again", he says.
Swiss businesses are known in the industry to be eager to modernise their software. "Switzerland is leading," says Günter Weimer, general manager of Microsoft Switzerland. "It moves faster than other countries."
There are 1.6 million computers in Switzerland's business sector, according to Weimer. Of these, 100,000 are already installed with Windows 2000 seven months after the programme came on the market. "Already, we sell as many Windows 2000 units as NT4 units", Weimer says.
Weimer attributes Switzerland's leading role to its business structure. "Many Swiss companies act globally, and smaller ones have adapted the same strategy."
Independent observers, however, suspect that software producers find it easy to sell their updates because the customers they deal with directly are also IT experts. They are people who also have a command of the jargon that outsiders sometimes find enigmatic.
"Software sellers and heads of IT departments have one thing in common - they are computer freaks", says computer journalist Fritz Reust who edits the magazine "Netz".
According to experts, the installation of Windows 2000 costs between SFr250 and SFr600 per employee. A changeover to Windows from NT4 costs considerably less than that from an older operating system.
The costs also increase with the size and complexity of a company, and are less if a company can use its own IT expertise in analysing and installing the new programme. Bringing in expertise from external software engineers costs SFr1,800 per working day.
One reluctant customer at the Orbit fair was Heidi Nussbaum, head of IT at Zürichsee Media, a multi-media and printing company with 200 employees. "We invested SFr450,000 in NT4 only two years ago, so we'll wait with Windows 2000, especially as we don't know if it will support all our other applications", she says.
Reust suspects that many IT experts are equally reluctant to buy into Windows 2000 in the first year it is on the market. "Many first versions are fraught with mistakes that are removed in later versions", he says.
Other companies are holding off on the new system because they spent a lot of money last year on protecting themselves against a possible computer crash on January 1, 2000.
All the experts agree, however, that new software versions bring gains in efficiency which usually justify the short life-span of computer programmes.
Windows 2000 is no exception. Apart from offering greater possibilites to its users, the new operating system saves up to 20 per cent of the total operating costs of a company's IT, according to Microsoft's Günter Weimer.
"I think it's safe to say that you get a return on your investment within a year", Weimer says.
by Markus Haefliger
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