The constantly increasing rate of change in technology has created a difficult time for consumers. It is very difficult to decide what trend is meaningful and what is trivial; difficult to learn what products work and what products are poorly designed or buggy; difficult to look at an upgrade and decide whether it’s worthwhile.

I’ve just gone through a couple of pointless upgrades. Manufacturers are focused on a yearly upgrade cycle but it’s not clear we have to play along any more.

Example: Adobe Photoshop Elements 3 was a major upgrade to its software for organizing and editing photos. Previous versions were fragmented (the organizer was sold separately from the editing program) and confusing. Version 3 turned it into a rich, beautiful place to work with your images, far and away the best program available and the only one you’d ever need.

I upgraded recently to Photoshop Elements 4. Its appearance onscreen is identical to version 3 and I have yet to discover any interesting difference whatsoever between the two versions. When I look at the list of changes between versions 3 and 4, I see a couple of things that are mildly interesting at best.

Example: I upgraded from Quicken 2004 to Quicken 2006. Again, the screen presentation on the new version is identical and I can’t find anything that strikes me as an important change or improvement.

These are random examples and not terribly surprising – Quicken, in particular, has been mature for a long time and doesn’t really need big overhauls. And there are certainly many programs that are upgraded for meaningful reasons, to add compelling features or to fix serious problems.

But it’s a reminder that we have to work hard to overcome the fog caused by marketing. You will be able to keep some of your dollars in your pocket if you take the time to research instead of stepping up every time a manufacturer ratchets the version number on a product.