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Vista – What can it do for your business?

It has cost billions of dollars to develop, been subjected to millions of hours of observation testing and, after a few delays, Microsoft’s new operating system Windows Vista, is here.

With a massive promotional budget, every small business will hear about Vista sooner or later and those that love the latest and greatest in technology for its own sake – and don’t mind a price tag of somewhere between £220 and £380 depending on the version you buy – will want to get hold of it straight away, while more cautious technology users who are quite happy with XP, will wait until they have a reason to buy new hardware.

Five versions of Vista are available, ranging from Home Basic, a version designed for simple email and Internet access, up to Vista Enterprise Edition, which is designed for organisations with large numbers of users. The two consumer versions, Home Basic and Home Premium are differentiated by the Windows Aero user interface available in Home Premium, which offers a three dimensional, animated view of applications and documents. Home Premium allows for the finding and organisation of large collections of images and videos.

Faster searching

The Windows Aero interface is also part of Vista Business, the version of the operating system most small and medium businesses will probably adopt. Users who have worked with the system say that the instant search facility makes it easier to look through masses of documents across individual desktops and small office networks. They also like new system administration facilities which prevent inexperienced users making major systems changes without permission.

Vista Ultimate includes BitLocker Drive Encryption, a method of encrypting the registry on the hard drive, making it much more difficult to tap into company secrets should a company lose a laptop, or have it stolen. The Ultimate version features Windows Media Centre, a version of the operating system used to turns PCs into a home based entertainment centre.

Hard on the heels of the Vista operating system launch are other enhancements to Small Business Server, Sharepoint, Infopath and the Office desktop applications suite. Office 2007 will work with XP Pro, but there can be little doubt that the office productivity suite will show its true colours when running under Vista.

Getting into the Groove

One of the features winning attention within Office 2007 is Groove, a virtual collaborative meeting space that allows team members or customers to work together on joint projects. Many of the features that users of Sharepoint and Infopath will be familiar with emerge in different guises in the new versions of Vista and Office 2007; Microsoft claims that the benefits for business users will be better overall integration and easier integration with web-based tools.

Alan Moody, managing director of office productivity software house Mamut, says that his company is upgrading to Office 2007 internally and likes what it sees. “Office 2007 demands small changes in the way we work with the menu system, but after exploiting the system the value is pretty clear to us and it is easier to leverage the different functionally in our daily operations,” he says.

Those who have tested the system are generally impressed with it, but they all agree that it does needs a powerful PC to run it. And most small businesses, unless they have just bought new hardware, or are about to do so, will probably not be running a PC with 1Gg of memory, a 1GHz processor and a DirectX 9 graphics card.

“We have been running Vista in a test environment on Pentium 4 machines with 2.8 GHz processor and 512K of memory and it has worked fine,” says Mitchell Feldman, managing director of IT solution provider The Internet Group. “But we are encouraging our clients that are interested in Vista to buy a duo-core machine with 1Gb of memory.”

Ready to run

Hardware vendors have been offering a range of Vista-Ready and Vista-Capable, as well as Vista-Ready Premium machines for some time now. A Vista-Ready machine will run the basic versions of Vista; a more powerful Vista Premium Ready machine has more memory and will run the Business, Ultimate and Enterprise versions of Vista. Some vendors are offering free Vista upgrades for machines bought before the end of March – they will be sold with XP allowing users to upgrade later.

Microsoft’s Mike Haigh, Windows Client Product Manager, says that compared with XP, Vista has improved connectivity, better security and better ways of encouraging remote working. “The trend that we see is that more and more people work remotely either all or some of the time. We think that 80 per cent of small businesses in the UK have some requirement to work remotely,” he says.

Haigh says that Vista will help remote workers by giving them better wireless connectivity and easier synchronisation with files created in other applications and by other users. A change made in one file by one user, for example, will be flagged up automatically to other users who have links to that file.

Upgrade drive

How quickly users make the move to Vista, remains to be seen. They will not be compelled to do so by their software suppliers. Accounting house Sage, for example, is going to continue supporting XP as well as the new version of Windows. “To get the best from Sage software you need Office 2003 or XP. We will not include features in our software which only work with Vista”, a spokesperson for the company told Living IT. Sage expects the take-up of Vista to be determined by the replacement PC market, rather than the upgrade market.

Research analyst firm Gartner Group sounds a similar note of caution. It predicts that there will be elements of Vista’s functionality that might affect the way applications – and in particular bespoke software that has been written for a specific purpose – will operate. It also recommends that organisations take 12 to 18 months to test and pilot Vista before fully rolling out the system. While Gartner is really thinking of larger companies when it gives this advice, SMEs are just as dependent on their software and no-one who values their business wants to be a guinea-pig.

That point made, Vista has been through thousands of hours of testing and should be pretty dependable. All software has the odd teething problem and the picture is always complicated when it comes to Microsoft, as hackers and virus writers tend to target the company – and the media tends to jump onto any small defect with enthusiasm. Vista is likely to be in the news regularly for the next few months.

Cautious approach

This does not mean that it won’t deliver some very real benefits but in the meantime, small businesses should take a cautious approach before installing Vista to run critical business applications, or applications that have been specifically designed to run under XP, says Russell Lux, managing director of solutions provider, LuxTech. “We have some bespoke software that was developed for us that is not compatible with Vista. The developers of that software intend to make it compatible with Vista, but not immediately.”

Should small business users decide to do nothing they can take some comfort from the fact that Microsoft’s published guidelines suggest that support for XP Pro Service Pack 2 will continue. Support for XP Pro Service Pack 1 ended in October this year.

Small businesses that are buying new kit in the next six months will probably find that it comes pre-installed with Vista. Companies will find themselves running both XP and Vista in the same site, but should not experience any difficulties. Mamut’s Alan Moody thinks that Vista is well worth immediate consideration – especially for anyone making the move to Office 2007.

“Upgrading to Office 2007 is something all small businesses should consider, as there is little doubt that it will become the world’s default office system. With its rich functionality, security, document management, collaboration opportunities and interface, Office 2007 has the ability to streamline the way smaller companies do business.”