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Accounting Software Updates: Are they Necessary?

Published on by Adam Bluemner


“Would you like to pay extra?”

Nobody wants to say yes to that question, of course.

But isn’t that how the question of whether to sign up for accounting software updates and support comes off?

It doesn’t matter how nice the name of the plan sounds. They could call it the Super Elite Gold VIP Customer Care Protection Guarantee. You’d still wonder: Am I really getting anything of value here?

And, it’s a point worthy of careful consideration. Software support and update contracts are not inexpensive.

Is your software update worth the cost?

The premise behind signing up for support and software version updates is pretty clear. You spend a bit extra up front to protect your investment and to prevent even bigger costs down the road.

But is it all worth it?

It’s a question you can only fully answer by considering the costs in light of the specific benefits a support and update contract can provide. There are four main advantages to paying for a support/update contract: stronger security, improved features, maintenance of current functionality, and access to tech support. Let’s take a closer look at how each benefit might figure into your decision.

Stronger security

Improving your security profile is the most significant benefit of staying current with software updates.

It’s easy to think of computer security as something that happens just outside of the business applications we use. Firewalls keep unwanted traffic off the network. Antivirus programs scan computers for the signatures of malicious code.

But strong security starts within the application. Along with controlling system access and training users, maintaining application security patches helps shut the door on potential exploits.

A quick read through any software program’s version release notes can shine a light on all the things that could go wrong if you’re not up to date with patches. Patch 1.1 might update poorly implemented error-handling that could be exploited to generate system freeze-ups. Patch 1.2 might fix code that leaves an open connection to the database. You get the picture.

Whatever the vulnerabilities, one thing remains the same. Once a vulnerability has been exposed, it can be exploited. The National Institute of Standards and Technology put it this way:

Most major attacks in the past few years have targeted known vulnerabilities for which patches existed before the outbreaks. Indeed, the moment a patch is released, attackers make a concerted effort to reverse engineer the patch swiftly (measured in days or even hours), identify the vulnerability, and develop and release exploit code. Thus, the time immediately after the release of a patch is ironically a particularly vulnerable moment for most organizations due to the time lag in obtaining, testing, and deploying a patch.

The importance of software application security is compounded with accounting software due to two factors. First, accounting functionality is critical the daily operation of a business. To put it mildly, not being able to receive or make payments, will be noticed—in the back office and on the bottomline! Secondly, the data held within accounting software applications is particularly sensitive. Theft, loss, or even exposure of proprietary data can have catastrophic effects. (For more on data security in accounting and payment applications, check out our recent post: “The $5.4M Question: Can POS Systems Prevent Credit Card Fraud.”)

Improved features

The idea of mitigating security might sound appealing, but it’s likely not the first benefit that comes to mind when you think about software updates.

“What’s New in Version X.X?” That’s the headline that software users look for when developers release updates. New features, increased automation, shortcuts—these are things that we tend to think of when anticipating version updates.

On the other side of the coin, there’s a reasonable question to be asked. Is it wise to expect much out of software updates?

There are no guarantees, of course, but a look back at previous release documentation can give you a very good idea if the developer is continuing to build on a program’s functionality or if they’re focusing on other products. In fact, if you notice a declining trend in the amount of new features being added, take heed. It could be a sign that the product will be discontinued in the near future.

Another benefit that version updates provide, though, is simply keeping up with changing environments.

  • New compliance standards may be introduced which require functional adaptations
  • Maintaining an effective integration with 3rd party programs may create the need for changes as those programs are updated
  • New operating systems will come to the market and software will often need to be adapted to their unique specifications

Maintenance of current functionality

In many cases, maintaining the initial level of functionality provided by your accounting software will require an active support and update contract. There’s a reason for that. Many programs rely on behind-the-scenes services.

Cloud-hosted subscription-based programs aren’t the only thing that’s blurring the line between software and service. Many locally deployed programs can be augmented with services deployed via the web. But in order to enjoy the benefits of these services, you’ll generally need an active (read: paid) contract. In fact, sometimes it’s not entirely obvious that a particular functionality depends on services, unless a contract lapses and the feature suddenly goes missing.

For instance, buyers who have purchased payroll software previously, will be aware that these programs require annual tax table updates.

Some accounting solutions today are even integrating payment gateway services. It’s a nice benefit for a company looking to consolidate providers or ease reconciliation tasks. But if your accounting software provider is acting as your credit card processing service, they’ll usually require a current updated version of software to facilitate the in-program integrations.

Cloud data back-up is another benefit many programs offer. With a simple configuration update, some programs will let you back up your records remotely in your provider’s data center. It’s a good way to geographically diversify the location of your back-up in case of fire or theft or any other threat that could affect your entire office. But, of course, your software provider won’t indefinitely host your data without some sort of ongoing subscription.

Access to tech support

It’s true that most of the time support and update contracts come bundled together. But there’s another important support related reason to stay current with software version updates.

Users of many popular programs have banded together to create active user groups. Users in these forums share tips and work together to improve the overall experience with the software. Posting a question to a user group is a great way to take advantage of the fact that someone else is likely to have solved the same problem previously. The further you get away from the current version of the software the less likely you are to find users equipped to answer your question. In fact, often the best user groups are often sponsored by the providers themselves and access to these resources may require an active support contract.

In terms of support services themselves, it’s worth considering the various different levels of support available.

Very often your purchase of accounting software will include first year support services. Tiered support service models are common. For instance, a typical offering include 8x5 support with phone and email access. An upgraded tier could raise the support level to 24x7 support or stipulate service improvements like shorter response times. A top-level support option might provide you with a dedicated support manager.

Adam Bluemner

is a Managing Editor at Find Accounting Software. He's been helping software buyers make informed investments in business software for over a decade.

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