Ramblings on Small Business Technology


Windows 10 Is Out. Do You Need It?

Windows 10Now that Microsoft has officially launched Windows 10, there will be a big push to get users of previous versions to upgrade to the newest Windows.  Microsoft is offering a “free” upgrade to most non-business users of previous Windows versions (Windows 7, 8, and 8.1, but not XP and previous). In addition, Microsoft is (literally) pushing the upgrade on-line, through it’s Windows Update service.  If you’re eligible for a free upgrade, they have by now pushed an update to your computer that advertises the free upgrade (in the form of a small windows logo in the system tray next to the clock) and entices you to register to receive it.  Should you?

If you’re on Windows 8.1 (or – shudder – still on Windows 8), you should absolutely take the leap to Windows 10. Windows 8 was such an unmitigated disaster (which the 8.1 upgrade only marginally fixed) that the jump to 10 is a no-brainer.  Technically, the system requirements are the same (and possibly even better for RAM requirements), so there should be no reason that your Windows 8/8.1 system couldn’t handle the upgrade to 10).  Most of the tablet/touch functionality has been preserved or improved, and the desktop (keyboard & mouse) mode has been restored to something that’s usable (which 8/8.1 wasn’t).  There are also other improvements, such as the new Edge browser, which shows promise to finally kill the beast that IE has become. Pull the trigger on the upgrade now!

If you’re still on Windows 7, it’s not as clear a decision.  Sure there is the bright, shininess to W10, but there is also a significant user retraining (arguably, much smaller than W8/8.1).  If you’re so used to doing things a certain way (and that way works for you), then W10 might change that a little or a lot – and for what benefit?  Speed? Security? Additional functionality? W10 only marginally improves all of these areas.  For most W7 users, there is not a compelling reason to upgrade (just yet).  Of course, this may change after MI would expect businesses to take much longer to push users into W10, probably as part of an overall hardware replacement schedule. icrosoft starts adding functionality this Fall.  Oh didn’t you hear? They promise much more frequent updates and new features (the equivalent of mini service packs), all released and forced down your throat pushed to your computer through the update service.

Of course, if your computer is part of a business domain, you won’t get a choice either way.  Your system administrator (people like me) and IT department will decide whether to upgrade your systems.  Oh, and those upgrades won’t be free.  Microsoft would like your licensing money, thank you very much.  Arguably, this initial version of 10 is primarily for home and student consumers (and the release date is timed for back-to-school purchase).  Many necessary business features aren’t included and will be coming later this year (or even next year), so this W10 really isn’t ready for business yet. I would expect businesses to take much longer to push users into W10, probably as part of an overall hardware replacement schedule.

So if you’re buying a new system, Windows 10 is just fine.  Have a current W8/8.1 system? By all means, get the upgrade.  Still on Windows 7?  I’d hang out awhile and watch what happens…

The Trouble with Vista

As you may have heard by now, Microsoft has terminated the sales of Windows XP (through most methods) and your only Windows desktop option is now Windows Vista.  Vista has been out for more than a year, but (other than for new home computers) hasn’t been widely accepted by the marketplace – especially by business customers.  Why? There are two primary reasons.

Reason One: Vista requires significantly more processor horsepower and memory to operate (in the “normal” mode with the jazzy graphics).  Many people have older computers with two or three year old CPUs that don’t really have the horsepower that is a good fit for Vista.  So for those computers, it makes sense to keep XP until the hardware needs replacing, but in most cases the machine (with XP) is just fine for what people need it for, so no upgrades here.

Reason Two: Vista in some cases uses a completely different programming model than did XP.  So in a lot of cases, software that ran fine on XP is broken on Vista.  Microsoft claims that the new model was implemented in the interest of security (and it probably was, since XP was VERY insecure to start with).  But with Service Pack 2 and the hotfix updates (and a decent IT staff), most XP desktops are reasonably secure for most business purposes.  Many businesses don’t want to risk having something critical break, just for the sake of the upgrade.

Many people in IT circles have hoped (and even petitioned) for Microsoft to keep selling XP, and they did extend sales for a few months (Microsoft typically sells the old OS for up to 24 months after the introduction of the new version).  But we’re only at Vista + 18 months.  Another truism: Only adopt the latest Microsoft product after the first “Service Pack” is issued (assumingly to fix all the major bugs that weren’t caught prior to the release).  So Microsoft rushed Vista Service Pack 1 to the masses in hopes of adoption after that milestone.  However, with the monthly “patch tuesday” updates, the SP1 is really a moot exercise (since most, if not all, of the updates in SP1 had already been pushed as part of the monthlies.

The real reason to stop selling  XP: Money (I know you’re shocked!).  Most people are just fine with XP, and most PCs sold in the last 2-3 years (with XP) have far more capabilities that are needed by 99% of the working public.  XP works just fine, and it’s (reasonably) secure for most purposes.  Moreover, it’s like an old friend – familiar and convenient.  We know how to make it work and find things.  We’re productive on it.

Microsoft (in a fit of Apple-related paranoia), had to “improve” the user interface of Vista – make it pretty, shiny and flashy – the “ohhh, ahhh” factor.  The problem is that scares off lots of marginally computer-literate people.  If Microsoft had just re-engineered under the hood (for security) and left the user interface the same, then it might have been a great product.  But the problem is that people wouldn’t have “seen” any changes to identify as “Vista”.  The best alternative (for the users) would have been a “XP Service Pack 4” that fixed several things under the hood, but left the UI alone.  Unfortunately, Microsoft couldn’t charge for that, since they have set the precedent that Service Packs are free.  No more money for Microsoft.

So we’re collectively stuck with an upgrade that we didn’t really ask for, we don’t really need, and we don’t want – just for the sake of Microsoft product cycle revenues.  If you need a new computer, Vista will work just fine, but you’ll be spending more that you really need for processor and memory (did I mention that the PC vendors like this too, for the same reason?).  You’ll have to learn the different parts of Vista (and the annoying “Are you sure you wanted to do that?” pop-up messages), but it will work.  But do you need it?  No, not really.

The real pain is the businesses that will be forced to operate in mixed-mode for the next several years, since there is no business case to upgrade their current PCs and yet there is no alternative to keep everything on XP until there is.  It just means more time, cost, and headaches for your freindly IT staff, who wish that we really had a choice in the matter.

FireFox 3 (or What’s The Best Browser, Part 3)

This week, the latest version of the FireFox web browser was released to much hype and fanfare.  Ignoring the hype, it’s still a major accomplishment.  I’ve been using it for almost a week now and I can tell you that I’m impressed by the increase in rendering speed and overall performance.

FireFox is another Open Source development effort (part of mozilla.org).  Interestingly, the very first web browser (Mosaic) was also open source.  It eventually was reincarnated as Netscape Navigator, the first widely available and used browser.  After Microsoft effectively killed off Netscape, the mozilla project was reborn from the proverbial ashes, and thankfully lives again.

I switched to FireFox when I got frustrated with Internet Explorer 6, which is arguably one of the worst browsers ever.  When IE7 came out (it’s amazing what a little competition will do to Microsoft), it was a significant improvement, but it still lacked the standards compliance and extensions model of FF2.  And there was a lot of standards non-compliance to get rid of.  Having been bitten by the DHTML/CSS web standards bug several years ago, most everything I develop is developed to current web standards.  I am continually amazed about how many things render differently in IE7 and more standards-accurate browsers (like FF), and consequently how much time I waste trying to make everything work correctly in both browsers.  But FF2 had its problems too – It had a significant memory leak and would slow down if left open for multiple days.

After 2+ years, FireFox 3 is here.  It’s significantly faster that its predecessor (GMail is almost tolerable in FF3) and hasn’t lost any of the rendering compliance of FF2.  What’s more, I found myself checking the extensions catalog for compatibility to see if my favorites had been upgraded to support FF3 before I pulled the trigger on the upgrade.  I wasn’t going to upgrade to FF3 without AdBlock or the Web Development toolbar!  Extensions are a big part of the overall FireFox allure.

Like I said earlier, it’s amazing what a little competition can do.  Microsoft has announced they are working on Internet Explorer 8.  While I’m sure they will ram it down everyone’s throat (through Windows Update), they better get busy – there’s a lot of ground to make up to catch the current leader!

Open Source Software

I have recently become a big proponent of Open Source software.  What is Open Source – it is software that is (usually) developed by a community of people (as opposed to a specific company).  The “open” comes from the publication and modification rights, which usually specify that the source code for the software is freely available and can be used, modified, or repurposed – as long as the result is also “open” (most Open Source projects are released under the GNU Public License (GPL)).

What does this mean for you? It usually means that the software is : 1) more robust (due to the larger number of community developers), 2) free (since no one company is profiting off the development), and 3) less platform-specific (since many developers mean many different preferences for platforms).  For most people, Linux (an open source variant of Unix) is synonomous with the open source “movement”.  But there are open source packages for many different applications.  For example,  this blog is powered by WordPress, an open source blogging package.  The “LAMP stack” (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) is a popular web and application server that is all open source.  I also use OpenVPN as a way to connect back to my network (and pretty much do anything I need to do!) when I am out of my physical office.  There is also Nagios, an open source network and host monitoring system, and SugarCRM, an open source competitor to Microsoft Dynamics CRM and salesforce.com.  And these are just the ones that I have used!  There are hundreds more.

Coming from a predominantly Microsoft-based corporate environment, I embraced most Microsoft products as inevitabilities.  But lately, I’ve discovered that there ARE viable alternatives that are just as capable (and sometimes moreso, since Microsoft tends to intimidate market share rather than to lead with innovation).  There is even a very capable alternative to the 800 pound gorilla that is Microsoft Office (Open Office).

Open Source software is not always free to end users and customers, since most require some effort to install, implement and customize, as well as support.  One of the penalties (if you choose to see it that way) is that open source software doesn’t come with a “one-click” installer (like a lot of commercial software) – that’s usually because installers are usually very limiting and open source packages are usually very flexible.  Also, there are business models where companies have grown around enhancing and selling services around open source software.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because many of these open source model companies have products and services that are stellar in comparison to their commercial equivalents, for a fraction of the price.

I encourage you to embrace Open Source – I sure have!