Upgrading to Super Software

At the end of January, Microsoft announced the release of its next-generation PC operating system, Windows Vista. This is the first desktop operating system the company has released since Windows XP, and it contains many innovations. 

One of the most visible improvements is the windowing system, dubbed Aero. Aero uses the power of todays 3D graphics cards to render your desktop with exciting results. Examples include transparent window boundaries, zooming effects and much, much more. Since XP, Apple has made many strides in its quest for an improved user experience; and with Aero, Vista steps up to the challenge.

Another major improvement is the addition of User Account Control. Basically, this feature monitors the low-level system components and ensures nothing is changed behind the scenes without the users knowledge. This prevents many of the spyware/adware/trojan infestations so many users have experienced.

The higher-end edition, Vista Ultimate, also sports a feature called BitLocker Drive Encryption. This feature enables you to encrypt your entire hard drive so only users with a user account and valid password can access system files. This prevents data from being used if the PC is stolen, as the files cannot be decrypted without the password.

Usability improvements also abound. The new Windows Search function indexes not only the names of all files on the system but their content as well. It also uses less of the PCs resources when its rebuilding the index, so you wont notice a huge slowdown as a result. This function enables the new search box on the Start Menu. You just start typing words, and it shows you every program and document that matches the words youve entered. If you have several installed applications, this can make starting them easier, since you wont have to burrow into your program menus to find them.

There are also numerous other enhancements such as SideBar (a nifty bar at the right edge of the screen that can contain various widgets, news headlines, e-mail notification, calendars, etc); Internet Explorer 7; an all-new version of Outlook Express called Windows Mail with built-in spam filtering; and a new scheduling application and Windows Calendar. There are many other new features as well.

For most businesses, I recommend using the Vista Business Edition. While the BitLocker feature in Ultimate can be compelling, it also costs about $120 more than Business. Ultimate also contains certain components unsuitable for business use such as extra games and the Media Center media recording/playback system. Business still includes Aero and all the other user interface improvements.
 
Overcoming Vistas Hurdles

If youre planning to upgrade to Vista, also plan an upgrade of your PC. Many old PCs will only be able to run Vista at its most basic settings without the new Aero interface. Most laptops being sold today wont support Aero because of its use of the 3D capabilities of your system to render your desktop. In the case of most low-end PCs and laptops, the video is usually supplied by an on-board video chip from Intel. While these chips are fine for viewing spreadsheets and documents, theyre useless for pretty much anything else.

In the long run, it may make more sense just to purchase a new PC with Vista already installed. Whether youre buying a desktop or laptop computer, be sure you specify if it has Nvidia or ATI video and the video chip used supports DirectX 9.
 
All or Nothing Wizardry

From a management-software point of view, Vista can potentially introduce many challenges or none. Depending on how the software is written, it may fail to work at all, malfunction or, in the best-case scenario, work perfectly. This is due in part to the fact that Vista represents possibly the most dramatic fundamental changes in Windows itself since Windows 95.

Aero required significant wizardry to accomplish, given that many of the concepts ingrained in developers minds about how to manipulate the display havent changed in more than a decade. Luckily, Microsoft managed to overcome most of the hurdles internally.

Some graphics applications may experience significantly slower drawing, corrupted display or hang-ups. Any program that accesses the system in a low-level way (communications, antivirus, CD/DVD writing) can find itself completely inoperable with nothing short of a total rewrite required.

Wise developers had their Vista-ready versions available the day Vista launched. Some used excuses for a delay such as, Well, Vista adoption will be slow. Unfortunately, arguments like that are flawed. The biggest source of operating-system revenue for Microsoft has always been and will always be new PC purchases. Within two weeks of its release, there were very few Windows XP PCs to be found at retail. Most manufacturers are ditching it wholesale, as most new PC buyers are not going to want to pay full price for a computer with an obsolete operating system.
 
Research Results

My company's Vista validation program began in September when the first release candidate of Vista was made available. Admittedly, many of the problems with the OS worked on early in the process were fixed before the final release, but many were a result of inherent changes to the OS. We were ready for Vista two months before its general release.

The largest hurdle we faced was the deprecation of OpenGL by Microsoft. OpenGL is the 3D-rendering interface we use for the 3D sitemap in Modern Storage Executive, SiteView 3D. This interface is also used by almost every available major CAD program and is the de facto 3D interface standard on every other operating system including Linux and Mac OS X.

Since it was deemed to be a competitor to Microsofts own Direct3D library (which is Windows-only and primarily targeted at game development), Microsoft decided to remove it. Eventually, Microsoft capitulated and included an extremely limited, obsolete, non-hardware accelerated version of OpenGL. The company also included a method for video-card vendors to hook in a fully accelerated version of their own design. By the time Vista was released, both major video chip vendors (ATI and Nvidia) had drivers with this support.
 
Web 2.0?

Youve probably heard the term Web 2.0 bandied about. Generally, this refers to a new class of applications such as those offered by the search-behemoth Google. While some of these applications may be compelling, the simple fact is Web 2.0 is just jargon. Theres no actual specification behind it, its just a commonly overused term, like Al Gores Information Superhighway was 10 years ago.

In a podcast interview for IBM, Web founder Tim Berners-Lee described it best: "Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is, of course, a piece of jargon; nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people-to-people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along. And, in fact, you know, this Web 2.0, it means using the standards which have been produced by all these people working on Web 1.0."

Beyond the semantics, however, is a possibility for compelling new applications. Some, like Google Spreadsheets, is basically a spreadsheet program that runs in your browser and allows you to manipulate files on your local drive as if you were using a program youd installed. Others are merely portals into an application that executes and stores data primarily on the hosting companys server. Most vertical market applications, such as management software, fall into the latter category.

Whats the fuss about? Well, Web applications offer some forceful features as well as some serious drawbacks. Lets take a look at a few of these.
 
Web-Based vs. PC-Based

A Web application can be accessed from anywhere in the world with just a Web browser. Technically, this is true. Of course, if your browser isnt the one the application is targeted for, it may not display or function correctly or at all. If your connection is too slow or flakey, using the application can be an exercise in frustrationor there may be a complete loss of connectivity somewhere between you and the hosting site, which means youre offline, period.

A PC-based application, on the other hand, wont suffer from any of these connectivity problems since your program and data are located on your PC. Traditional PC-based applications may not be accessible from remote locations on their own, but there are many ways to take remote control of a PC, from the free VNC clients and Remote Desktop to Symantec pcAnywhere. These tools will enable you to access your data from anywhere and are, of course, subject to the same limitations of a Web app in terms of connectivity.

One argument for Web-based apps is the PC-reliability factor. If your PC crashes, gets a virus, etc., youll have problems with PC-based software. Maybe you will, maybe you wont. Unfortunately, a Web browser is still a PC-based program, and it wont work if your PC has crashed.

Some software vendors offer hosted services. Your application runs on their server, and you access it using Remote Desktop, Citrix or some other variant. Your data is stored on their server, and more than one person can use it simultaneously.

Data security is an ongoing issue. Large multi-national companies are being hacked all the time, losing peoples private identity information. If this can happen to a company with billions of dollars in annual revenue, it can easily happen to a smaller Web company. In the end, youre entrusting the safety of your data to people you dont know and security protocols you have no control over, and possibly exposing yourself to an unacceptable amount of liability.

Data safety is another consideration. Are you sure that a Web provider is doing routine backups? Does it have backup servers? It may tell you that it does, but only it knows for sure. With a PC-based program, your data and backups are up to you. They are as up-to-date and safe as you choose to make them.

Features are another important comparative factor. PC-based programs are capable of having much richer and intuitive user interfaces than Web applications. Perhaps in the distant future this will change, but for now, there are many communications- and networking-related tasks that simply cannot be performed from a sandboxed Web environment.

One compelling feature of Web-based programs is integrated updates. This means that if the vendor changes the application, it instantly changes for all users. There is no need to install an update disc. The only drawback to doing things this way is the entire Web application could be down for every user during the time the upgrades take place. This is probably a minor thing, but for those who find installing update discs difficult, its not. This problem isnt endemic, however; for example, my company's software downloads all of its updates from the Web, and they are installed transparently with only a couple of clicks.

The last thing to think about is pricing. Web applications may initially seem to cost less, but thats because you cant buy themthey typically involve a monthly or annual subscription fee. While this lure may be enticing at first, remember the back end. If you decide you dont want to pay the ransom anymore, you will find yourself with nothing. They may give you your database and even charge you for the privilege, but you are now without software and all that money is completely gone. PC-based software will continue to work years after youve bought it.
 
Chris Lautenbach is the vice president of research of development at Modern Access Systems Inc. (MASI ) in Brampton, Ontario. MASI provides management software, access, security, camera and kiosk solutions for the self-storage, recreation and parking industries. For more information, call 800.663.5715 in the United States, or 866.512.8374 in Canada; visit www.masiglobal.com.

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