If a week is a long time in politics, five years is an eternity in the software business. That’s how long it has been since the last upgrade to the Windows operating system (OS) – the foundation stone of Microsoft’s software empire.
After delays, development and returns to the drawing board, Windows Vista made its bow in Ireland last Tuesday, along with the companion products Exchange Server 2007 for email and 2007 Office System, the suite of productivity tools that includes Word and Excel.
New to Vista are a number of features including an improved user interface and a new graphics engine. More of interest to businesses will be easier management, new in-depth search capabilities as well as a greater focus on IT security.
In an unusual move, Microsoft split the launch so that business customers got to see Vista first, before it will be released to the consumer market later in January.
In all there will be six different editions of Vista: two business versions, Vista Business and Vista Enterprise; three consumer versions, Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate; as well as one for emerging markets, Vista Starter.
It’s unquestionably the software giant’s biggest ever product launch for business customers, with an extensive testing programme along with a research and development budget that runs into billions of euro.
Locally, the company will spend upwards of €2m on the launch. Some 15,000 IT professionals and developers tested the product in Ireland alone, Microsoft said.
Pierre Liataud, vice-president of Microsoft Western Europe, said one of the key pillars to the launch was the need for greater business insight from the technology tools at their disposal.
“The ability to find the right information is embedded in all the tools we are releasing,” he said.
That’s a tacit acknowledgement of how important the searching function has become. In the intervening time since Windows XP was launched in 2001, the likes of Google — to name the most obvious competitor — have ensured this is an important factor for computer users.
Microsoft’s take on this is that there is now so much data generated by the average worker — 800MB per year — on top of rising volumes of email and other sources of information such as blogs.
As a result, sifting through the morass of information to find relevant material that matters to a business is paramount. By making this task easier, workers and therefore businesses become more productive, Microsoft argues.
In line with this, the search feature has been made easier and more prominent in Vista. It’s accessed via the toolbar at the bottom of the screen, letting users find items not just by name but also based on content within a file.
Vista’s new interface is aimed at simplifying the job of users to navigate around the PC and to find features they need.
According to Microsoft, much customer feedback from earlier versions of Windows was for features that were already there but not so obvious to the user.
Security is key to Vista — the delayed launch was due in no small part to a decision to rewrite large amounts of the software to make it more immune to threats such as malicious code.
Microsoft hopes that business concerns around this issue will spur greater uptake of the new OS, although this emphasis isn’t unique to Vista. Three years after XP was launched, threats such as viruses and worms forced the release of Service Pack 2, an upgrade also designed to be more secure.
Vista’s Enterprise version includes a security feature that encrypts data so that if the computer is lost or stolen, the data on it cannot be retrieved by an unauthorised party.
The OS also comes with a new peer-to-peer wireless networking feature called ‘people near me’ that creates a permission-based session between two or more laptop users, allowing them to share files and collaborate on documents securely without the hassle of having to connect via cables or swap USB storage keys.
Perhaps most interestingly for businesses, Vista and Exchange 2007 promise a reduction in costs for IT managers to administer and secure their systems, which Liataud said offers a “compelling reason” for businesses to upgrade.
Analysts are more circumspect than Microsoft, however. International Data Corporation, the technology industry watcher, has forecast that while 90 million units of Vista will be deployed next year, the majority of these will be to home users rather than businesses.
Windows Vista Business and Windows Vista Enterprise will account for 35pc of the new Windows client operating environments deployed by business users in 2007, the firm said.
Forrester Research found that 34pc of PC decision-makers at US and European enterprises plan to start their Vista deployments within one year after its release. How broad the deployments will be is still up for debate, the company added.
Other industry watchers have suggested Vista is a compelling proposition for companies running older versions of Windows. An organisation running XP is likely to keep its powder dry for some time, they suggest.
In a briefing note, Forrester Research said: “There’s no doubt Microsoft has made fundamental changes to improve performance, reliability and security, but upgrade apathy will take time to overcome.”
From a business perspective, what may swing the argument in Vista’s favour is its combined release with 2007 Microsoft Office System and Exchange Server 2007, Forrester said.
It may be easier for businesses to wait until they are ready to upgrade to Office 2007, for example, before rolling out Vista simultaneously as deployment is likely to be easier that way.
Microsoft’s Liataud admitted that “the jury is out” as to the pace of adoption for Vista among business customers. He pointed out that upgrades need not involve installing brand new hardware to run the software.
“Most of the PCs shipped in the last year and a half are actually capable of taking Windows Vista,” he said, adding that this might involve additional memory chips to cope with the additional performance required.
The company has scored some early customer wins in Ireland (see panel) and Joe Macri (pictured), managing director of Microsoft Ireland, said that early adopters and laggards were a fact of life among technology buyers.
“There are going to be some customers who will go on the dot because they see the value of it and there are customers at the other end who do not. The challenge for us is the customers in the middle,” he said at the launch.
“Typically it’s the vast majority of the market that allows PCs to come in [to their organisation] with Vista but will keep using XP,” Macri explained. “That’s where we’re going to spend a lot more time addressing.”
No concerns with Vista use
Although many businesses may wait before upgrading to the new operating system and associated software, several Irish customers have already piloted the technology, including Cork County Council, Trinity College Dublin and Euroconex.
The charity Concern has been using SharePoint Server and Groove, part of the Office 2007 suite, to improve collaboration among its aid workers, particularly in areas where broadband isn’t readily available.
In the past, it took a long time for documents to be sent to people on the ground working on projects in Malawi, for example. Groove lets them work on documents when they aren’t connected to the internet and then synchronise them later so that colleagues can work on the same item.
Kingspan was also involved in the evaluation period, with a particular interest in its information rights management features for protecting and managing data held on laptops and desktop PCs.
According to Ricky McKenna, the construction firm’s group IT manager, Vista will also save time in deploying new machines. “It will cut down the length of time for us to rebuild a PC from a couple of hours to 10-15 minutes,” he said.
Less time should mean lower costs — a message that Microsoft will be keen to ensure that businesses in Ireland and worldwide understand very clearly.
By Gordon Smith