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BUSINESS SOFTWARE

Nice View, Rough Terrain

Microsoft's Vista looks pretty, but it's a challenging upgrade.
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Tris Hussey couldn't wait to get his hands on Vista when the new Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) operating system launched at the end of January. Hussey, a self-described geek and the chief technology partner at the blogging agency One By One Media, had to have it.

He went for a bleeding-edge 64-bit version, designed to take advantage of his computer's fast processor. Unfortunately, his sound card and microphone didn't work with 64-bit software. He had to hunt for device drivers, small programs that help such peripherals connect with the computer. After a series of mishaps that led him to reformat his hard drive three times, Hussey switched to a more software-friendly 32-bit version of Vista. Even so, he's had issues with his printer, which didn't have a Vista driver, and the newest version of Skype's VoIP software, which refused to install properly until he figured out some undocumented commands that made it work.

So it goes whenever Microsoft introduces a new version of Windows. Businesses suffer pain and agony, some of it self-inflicted, before they see a lot of the benefits. Vista, released after six years of development, boasts a slick new interface that looks pretty and makes viewing and finding files easier. Visual icons for documents, photos, and folders let you preview files before opening them. Choosable "Gadgets"--similar to Apple's "Widgets"--keep useful, small applications such as calendars and calculators permanently on the desktop. Vista's main advantage is better security; it gives administrators greater control over user accounts, has a built-in firewall to protect computers from outside access, and warns users before they engage in potentially unsafe activities such as downloading software and opening attachments.

Six months after its release, Vista is the fastest-selling operating system in Microsoft's history, with 40 million copies already out the door, and Microsoft is doing its level best to make it inevitable that new PCs are equipped with it. Is it time for you to upgrade, as well? Not necessarily, says Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates in Wayland, Massachusetts. Some 90 percent of those copies have been sold to consumers, not businesses, Kay points out. "Businesses wait for a new platform to settle down and for all the drivers and things to be debugged," he says. Businesses also like to do things in regular cycles, and while Vista improves on Windows XP, there's no reason for anyone to rush out and add it to all their systems.

Hussey, for his part, had some regrets that he hurried out to get Vista, but he's happy with it now. He says it downloads software faster. He likes the new interface and a search tool that can find text in e-mail messages as well as documents. Still, he advises entrepreneurs to wait until later this year, when Microsoft releases Service Pack 1 for Vista, a significant patch designed to fix vulnerabilities and bugs most people don't even know about.

Shifting to a new operating system, of course, can cost a lot of money. Vista itself costs $200 to $400 at retail (half that amount if it's an upgrade from Windows 2000 or XP), and many companies will also pony up for the made-for-Vista Office 2007 suite of business applications. That's not required but is probably inevitable. Microsoft introduced new file formats for the 2007 versions of Word and Excel that may become necessary for businesses to support. The cost of Microsoft software alone, depending on volume license arrangements, could top $700 per user. And computers may need to be replaced or upgraded; in particular, many will need more random access memory to handle Vista's attractive but RAM-intensive translucent window borders, a design called Aero.

Beyond cost, new Microsoft operating systems typically have a lag between their ship date and the time when many hardware and software developers catch up. There are thousands of software programs and hardware devices that need to work with Vista.

Linda Wilson, IT director at the Hoffman Agency, a public relations firm in San Jose, California, is waiting for key software vendors to support Vista. Two of her company's crucial applications, EMC Documentum's eRoom document-management system, and Timeslips, an employee time-tracking system from Sage Software, don't work with Vista, though both companies are expected to release versions that do by the end of the year. Upgrading will mean spending extra money, probably $25,000 for eRoom alone. New versions also mean new features, which can mean increased help desk costs and training issues. Wilson will begin installing these Vista-ready versions in the fall, when Hoffman will start its normal cycle of upgrading its PCs.

Why bother at all? Wilson likes a tool that lets her know if users install unlicensed software. Plus, she likes Vista's file-preview feature.

Mark Schmidt, the IT administrator at American National Bank of Fremont in Fremont, Nebraska, was a small-business beta tester of Vista. He has moved about half of his 42 users to the operating system. But he, too, is waiting. He has to wait for the bank's core systems platform vendor, Information Technology, to upgrade the bank to a new Vista-capable version of its software, and the application the bank uses to clear checks through the Federal Reserve doesn't work with Vista yet.

Still, he says, nobody who's been given Vista "has been screaming at me the next day." That isn't high praise for Vista, but neither is it a warning, and that might be the most important thing a business needs to know about it.

Resources

For Microsoft's official Vista website, which has product details and system requirements, go to www.microsoft.com/vista. For a useful neutral-party take on Vista developments and related matters, check out the "Microsoft Watch" blog at www.microsoft-watch.com. And keep tabs on all small-business technology at our website IncTechnology.com.



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