January 29, 2008

2008 Thoughts on Vista & Office 2007

Listening to the tech press, you'd think Windows Vista is on its death bed. John Dvorak is behind the "Vista Death Watch", and other trade mags are supporting efforts to "save" XP. Not that the latter is a bad thing -- Windows XP's current state is that of an excellent operating system, very stable and mature, with more moderate hardware requirements than Vista. But of course, that wasn't how XP arrived, was it? No -- lots of hardware and driver incompatibilities, and it was very unstable and regularly crashed for many until the first two service packs (SPs) showed up. XP SP1 even managed to trash a number of PCs so badly their owners had to wipe them and reinstall XP from scratch. Talk about the ultimate failure for a patch designed to increase stability and performance. Thus many IT pros are waiting to see what SP1 will do for Vista.

Will Vista end up similar to how the market received Windows ME? The comparisons would seem apt so far. With each platform generation of Windows, Microsoft has typically taken three times to get it right, and the fourth to bloat it up beyond repair. The last time around, it was Win95, Win98, Win98 SE (widely acknowledged as the best and most stable of the Win9x series), and of course the "Millennium Edition" which was so bloated and troubled that it mainly only saw installations in the consumer PC market -- and many of those were sold as pre-installations on new PCs. This time around, we started out with the clunky Windows NT, saw substantial improvements in both Windows 2000 and XP, and are still wondering how Vista will play out.

The big success story for Microsoft is that their new Office 2007 line rocks compared to their previous efforts. I've been using the Office 2007 Professional suite since June and am hooked. Better and easier comparison tools built into Word (finally!!!!), built-in metadata removal, etc. The ribbon bar simply rocks. Outlook 2007 is a joy to use and its built-in search is blazingly FAST! I added OneNote 2007 recently and it's really been improved -- lots of new features and integration with the other Office 2007 apps and IE to easily move information over to OneNote. OneNote's new indexing and search within images is utterly fantastic. Microsoft actually listened to their customers in developing Office 2007, and it shows. While organizations will need to plan their migrations and third-party integrations with the Office 2007 suite carefully, I think many will like the numerous improvements once they give it a chance.

Despite the press-mongering, from direct experience I also don't have much in the way of negative feelings for Vista so far. Is it bloated? Absolutely. Does it consume disk space faster than an interstellar black hole? You bet. Does it seem designed by a committee with no unifying theme other than the "Aero" look and feel? Affirmative. But is it unstable? Not in my experience so far, although I'll reserve judgment until after I've installed all the forthcoming SP1-related patches. I've been running Vista Ultimate (32-bit) on a new Toshiba mid-range laptop since June with a TON of new and legacy apps, and overall it's been a pretty good experience. In other words, it hasn't stopped me from getting things done. No system crashes, no "stop" errors, mostly just some apps stopping and restarting.

With the above criticisms said, Vista is not without its charms. There are a number of things I really like about Vista:

  • Fast built-in search, at least for the indexed file types. You can also customize the indexing settings.
  • Vista Sidebar Gadgets - Great for monitoring just about everything, including system performance, weather alerts, To-Do's, and even receiving Office 2007 tips and tricks from MS, and a lot more. (Yes, Apple, Google, and Yahoo have their widgets and whatnots too.)
  • Simplification of user accounts into "Standard User" and "Administrator", and the ability for standard users to temporarily elevate their rights to an administrator without logging out and back in again.
  • Handles media file types in Explorer better than XP, especially when tagging files.
  • Vista's Mobility Center is great for pulling various system settings together into a single control panel -- perfect when setting up for a presentation in a hurry.
  • Live pop-up previews of open programs in the task bar -- this really helps when you have many open windows and need to find the right one quickly. (Vista's new 3D Desktop Flip is a nice addition too, but after seeing Ubuntu 7.10's desktop flip, I like it better than Vista's as it uses a better visual metaphor.)
  • Dialogs, Help, Windows Explorer, etc., all improved in usability, navigation, and explaining things to users in plainer language.
  • Built-in basic CD/DVD burning. Now even unsophisticated users can burn discs without having to learn a new program. Easy wizard-based steps and it works.
  • Windows Complete PC Backup (full drive imaging backup) really works, but it's not available in any of the Home versions. Ironically, home users need it the most as businesses typically already employ more advanced drive imaging tools for deployments.
  • Vista can resize hard drive partitions on the fly without reformatting or losing data, rather like a built-in basic version of PartitionMagic. (Perfect if you want to make room to dual-boot to a second OS, such as WinXP or Ubuntu Linux.)
  • An improved Disk Cleanup utility that walks you through a nice wizard and shows you how much space you're likely to reclaim before you commit.
  • New Control Panel applet for easily setting file associations with your installed programs. (Perfect for when another program has grabbed a file association away from your preferred program.)
  • New Aero interface is very Apple-ish (that can't be a bad thing as long as your hardware supports it). Yes, it's mainly eye candy and sucks resources on slower systems, but I like it. It's handy at times to see what's sitting underneath the current window via its transparency. Aero runs fine on my mid-range laptop, and gives Windows that new car smell. (Windows DreamScene is in the same category -- think full-motion desktop backgrounds -- but I like it too.)
Of course, there are a number of things I really dislike in Vista as well:
  • UAC (User Account Control) -- Too many redundant prompts, which interrupt my workflow. I absolutely LOVED the Apple commercial dissing it with the Secret Service guy. Priceless. (It's on YouTube.)
  • File shadow copying service works and is accessible in Vista Ultimate, BUT: The home versions stupidly keep making shadow copies of your files but don't let you access them, so it's a waste of valuable drive space AND it presents an e-discovery treasure trove (Duh!). You can either turn off your System Restore protection to disable shadow copies (not a good idea as it's saved my bacon several times), or reduce the amount of drive space allocated for restore points, which limits your recovery options. Microsoft absolutely needs to provide a way to turn off file shadow copies while preserving System Restore's core functionality of backing up and restoring just your system files and registry settings.
  • While greatly simplified, Vista's built-in Disk Defragmenter has been lobotomized from the power user's perspective: There's no graphic status, not even a simple progress bar. Vista only presents a single button to click. After that, it lacks any indication of its progress or how long it will take -- could be minutes, could be hours. Place your bets, round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows! (Not even Microsoft.) On the bright side, Vista automatically defrags your disk in the background at reduced throttle, which is good for many users who just don't defrag otherwise.
I also wouldn't run Vista on anything less than a dual-core CPU, 2GB of RAM, a halfway decent graphics card, and a nice big hard drive. The over-hyped ReadyBoost is more pain than what it's worth, and I don't use it. It's also subject to the law of diminishing returns. ReadyBoost supposedly helps more on systems with lower RAM (e.g,. 512MB), but it makes far, far less of a difference the more RAM you have onboard. At 2GB of RAM it likely won't provide any real boost per some of the online tests I've read, and my personal trials confirmed as much.

Overall, and with the exception of hard-core gamers needing XP's faster performance, I see Vista as a nice OS for home users buying new PCs -- though it's somewhat crippled without Ultimate's enhanced features. Other than the new drive encryption and other security enhancements, it's definitely a tougher sell for businesses. There's just not that much noticeable improvement or enough compelling new features to justify moving from XP yet, especially when you consider the substantial cost and effort involved in testing/migrating hundreds of legacy programs to ensure their compatibility. Not to mention Vista has significantly higher hardware requirements if you want good performance for your users.

Thus Vista's OS licensing is only the tip of the total cost iceberg. IT executives are likely considering skipping Vista altogether and deploying the next OS, "Windows 7", when it ships (right now it's slated for 2010, but we all know Microsoft usually pushes back its ship dates along the way). The trick is to manage the time gap if Microsoft doesn't change their plans for phasing out XP. Currently, mainstream support for Windows XP SP2 will end on April 14, 2009, after which it switches to "Extended Support" that will last for 5 years until April 8, 2014.

As long as businesses are able to purchase new XP Pro licenses during this gap as needed, it will seriously undercut the need to upgrade to Vista. Many industry analysts are predicting Microsoft will extend XP's mainstream support given the considerable outcry from home and business users alike. However, MS usually waits to just before the support cutoff deadline before announcing any extensions, as earlier announcements would only serve to provide more reasons to stay with XP instead of upgrading.

Office 2007, on the other hand, is a noticeably superior improvement, and the clear winner from Microsoft this past year. Since switching, I never want to go back to an earlier version. The many new features and enhancements actually work well. Microsoft's apps division finally gets it.

Bottom line, if I were a CIO looking at Microsoft upgrades, I'd invest in Office 2007 and offset it by staying put with WinXP for a bit longer, especially as SP3 is coming and should extend its life. Don't get me wrong, I actually like Vista and have had a good experience with it so far. But when it comes to quantifying it, Vista is a much tougher sell for businesses than consumers.

Topic(s):   Law Practice Management
Posted by Jeff Beard