Wherever I was roaming in the field of IT Service Management and IT Project Management, I encountered the terms update and upgrade in an almost interchangeable way. People refer to this as if they are the same thing, but are they? In this article we are trying to make sense of these two terms and determine where one term ends and the other term starts as far as the definition could go.
Deconstructing the terms
If you deconstruct update, you end up with the words up and date. In this sense the activity would consist of increasing the freshness of something or someone. In this context it would only mean to bring something up to date but that does not automatically include an increase of features or the quality of what was previously in scope of what was updated.
When deconstructing upgrade, you get the parts up and grade. That suggests the meaning of increasing the grade of something or someone. In this context grade would have a similar meaning as “degree”, “level”, or overall usefulness.
What does it mean “to update”?
When you are updating something or someone, you are bringing it into a state, which is most compliant or most appropriate on that particular day. When updating software, you are looking at smaller iterations, which might address data changes or bug fixes. It could also mean to amend data to reflect their current state. Two examples for that would be the progress of updating people or updating documentation. If you don’t update, you might be outdated, but there usually is no process of downdating something.
What does it mean “to upgrade”?
When you are upgrading something, you are extending its functional scope. This could mean something like including more features, working in a better quality or improving performance in another way. For software this would mean that an upgrade is a major version change, which introduces ways of doing more, doing it faster, or doing it better. When upgrading hardware you are accounting for better technical specifications and performance. You cannot upgrade people, in a sense of what they know however, and improving people’s skills would also not be considered an upgrade. The terminology is usually not referencing human resources. Unlike the downdating from above, it is not uncommon to downgrade something, for whatever practical or financial reason.
The difference between update and upgrade
If you wanted to explain someone now the difference between updating and upgrading in a short sentence, you could describe it like this:
An update refreshes a product or fixes a problem and an upgrade adds functions or improves quality and performance.
Let’s stay realistic
Just because we wrote this article it does not mean that the usage culture of this terms will be changed at all. When there is a so strong culture and routine buy-in, it is very unlikely that this would ever change. If you read this and agree, feel welcome and invited to use the terms as suggested but don’t expect anybody to adhere to the definition. To avoid conflict you should always include some information on what you are trying to do and what the change activity would entail.
An update is to make something newer.
An upgrade is to make something better.
— Christopher Isak (@ChristopherIsak) April 11, 2016
We raised a Twitter poll today for the community to vote, whether they agree to this definition or not. So far there is a strong consensus but please feel invited to add your vote and share your opinion either via tweet or in the comment section below.