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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Behold the upcoming Vista of Microsoft operating system

March 20, 2006

Microsoft has announced how it's going to package and sell its brand new operating system, now called "Vista," but long code-named "Longhorn." The company has devoted a big chunk of its home page to a single link to more information about Vista (www.microsoft.com). Of course, you can't buy it yet, because it hasn't been released, but you can look at screen captures of it.

Be ready to read a while. Vista is coming in six flavors, two of which are aimed at business users, and a third that can't make up its mind between home and office. Five versions are listed on Microsoft's site, while the sixth, called "Vista Starter," is to be sold only for PCs in emerging markets.

Microsoft is apparently under few illusions that the typical small to mediumsize business will upgrade when Vista is released. Large companies will almost undoubtedly move to Vista Enterprise as soon as they can, to get the enhanced security and management features, such as BitLocker, which will supposedly work like a car stereo removal-shutdown alarm. If somebody steals the computer, he or she won't be able to operate it. Interestingly, Bit-Locker has generated a controversy, because law-enforcement agencies want an easy "back door" through BitLocker on seized machines. Microsoft has said it has no intention of providing one.

The Vista interface has finally caught up with its glitzier competitors. When you flick through the various windows using Alt+Tab, for example, you'll now see thumbnails of the windows, rather than just icons for them. You can stack windows in a 3-D configuration and thumb through them, too. And windows can be see-through, as they are in Apple's OSX.

However, despite the augmented cool factor, for a typical small to medium-size business, Vista is probably not a big improvement over Windows XP, although you could make a good argument that old Windows 2000 machines should now be upgraded to Vista. If you're already on XP, Vista won't run your applications significantly faster, and the new search and explore capabilities won't be worth the bother of upgrading right away. On the other hand, for people who carry laptops and other mobile devices, Vista may well become the operating system of choice. Here, Microsoft has indeed come up with some interesting enhancements for the road warrior.

We luggers of laptops are a special breed. We need to be able to plug into anybody's projector systems. We need to closely monitor our power usage, because we're so frequently away from receptacles. We rely on wireless connectivity, because we wander far from our offices' plug-in cables. We're constantly creating things on our own laptops, then scheming about how to share them with others.

The irony is not lost on us that the closer we are physically to our colleagues or clients, the more difficult it can be to share materials with them, because we may not have Internet connections at remote sites, and therefore e-mail, instant messaging and other online file-sharing techniques are beyond our powers. To get around the isolation, we brandish thumb drives the way concert-goers hold up lighters.

Vista promises to solve this problem for us. If everyone in the room has wireless capability, Vista will create an adhoc, special wireless network specifically for the attendees. Then it can open an application Microsoft calls "Shared View," which is seemingly an adaptation of NetMeeting, itself a Microsoft mainstay for years.

Unlike NetMeeting, though, Shared View allows you to host your own document and share it, rather than having to log into a remote server. Vista is also supposed to automatically detect a projector on either a wireless or wired network, and connect to it. This is important to lots of us who are on the road, because we're always having to use whatever projectors are offered to us.

Although there are five versions to pick from, the choice shouldn't be a hard one. Of the five, two (Vista Home Premium and Home Basic) are outright rejects for the business office, and Vista Ultimate is highly questionable. Despite its name, Vista Ultimate is not an elite product, but merely combines the best of home entertainment and business functionality into one package. The result probably won't be of much interest except for one-person microbusinesses who will use the same machine for work and for play.

The rest of us will probably see a lot of Vista Business and, in larger companies, Vista Enterprise. Pricing is still unknown, although rumor has it Microsoft will peddle most of the Vista versions at rock-bottom prices, believing that doing so will reduce the motivation for piracy.



Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim.altom@perficient.com.
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