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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

improving Vista

who blasted Microsoft three months ago for failing to deliver Windows Vista add-ons have again called the company on the carpet, this time for missing its self-imposed deadline to provide promised extras.

In late June, bloggers and users were already panning Vista Ultimate Extras as a bust. Extras, available only to customers running the top-end Vista edition, was one of the features cited by Microsoft to distinguish the $399 operating system from its $239 cousin, Home Premium. Microsoft's online marketing, for instance, touted Extras as "cutting-edge programs, innovative services, and unique publications" that would be regularly offered to Ultimate users.

But by June, Microsoft had not released any new Extras since it issued a beta of DreamScene, a video screensaver, in February. That infuriated some users; several days later, Microsoft tried to defuse the situation by promising to wrap up DreamScene and 20 unfinished language packs ... "By the end of the summer

Companies planning to roll out Microsoft Corp. 's Windows Vista operating system can thank people like Eric Craig.

Craig, a managing director at Continental Airlines Inc., started moving his company to Vista early this year, far sooner than most businesses. For Continental and other early Vista adopters, being first meant wrestling with an array of challenges that include security programs that weren't ready and problems with "driver" software for running printers and other devices.

Such pioneers are an important part of Microsoft's strategy, which employs customers' feedback to help improve Vista and the software universe designed to work with it.

"We're happy to share our experience," Craig said.

That is good news for the followers, many of whom remain daunted by the prospect of moving to Vista. Indeed, a recent Forrester Research survey of 565 companies in the United States and Europe with more than 1, 000 employees showed that only 7 percent plan to start rolling out Vista this year, with 25 percent expecting to begin the process next year. Some 38 percent of respondents said they didn't have plans yet to move to Vista.

Why the reticence ? By the time Microsoft first made Vista available to businesses last November - five years after its predecessor Windows XP - companies had built or bought many layers of software on earlier versions of Windows, including security software to guard against viruses and other malicious computer code. Moving to Vista requires modifying those software layers, running the risk of creating new problems.

And there is simply no substitute for actually installing Vista in real businesses to find the glitches, and to fully test the attendant software - like the drivers - that has been tweaked to run with Vista. Microsoft provides free software tools and programs to help with the migration, but those programs also must be enhanced based on experience gained through their use.

Roughly nine months after Vista was made broadly available, information-technology professionals say installing Vista is gradually becoming easier.

"If you're an IT person sitting down to do this you have much better information available than you did six months ago," said Steve Kleynhans, an analyst at Gartner Group. "Six months from now it's going to be even better."

Continental since May has replaced nearly 2, 000 personal computers at two of its three reservation centers with Vista PCs. The work was delayed a bit as Continental waited for certain Vista-compatible drivers, security software and other software from Microsoft partners, Craig said. Continental is now working with Cisco Systems Inc. to rejigger the network-equipment maker's call-center software to work better with Vista, Craig said. By sometime in the first quarter of next year, Craig expects to have converted up to 7, 000 of his company's 18, 000 PCs to Vista.

Another organization that experienced the trials is the Australian Customs Service, which decided to shift a fleet of aging PCs to Vista earlier this year. By dumping 3, 000 old machines for new ones that come with Vista, the agency avoided some onerous chores associated with upgrading existing hardware. But it still had problems with a security feature in Vista called BitLocker.

The customs service was able to get Hewlett-Packard Co., the PC supplier, to provide a revised piece of software that fixed the problem. Such fixes are typically shared with Microsoft and other makers of software tools to help Vista buyers.

"The third-party support has been a little bit slow but that's progressively gotten better," said Murray Harrison, the customs service's chief information officer.

Microsoft provides a free downloadable software kit businesses can use to upgrade existing PCs to Vista. The kit, called the Business Desktop Deployment tool, automatically transfers information over the Internet about companies' IT systems and technical problems to Microsoft. The data are used to help improve the upgrade kit. So far, customers have downloaded about 220, 000 copies of it, Microsoft executives say.

Customer feedback has also aided the process of modifying the driver programs. Microsoft executives say the number of driver programs for Vista has swelled to 2. 2 million from 1. 5 million in January.

Another critical issue is application compatibility - whether Vista can run the business programs that companies now use. Some are sold by software companies and some are internally developed by users. Companies may have thousands of different applications that need to be tested for compatibility before a new operating system is introduced.

Microsoft runs a program for certifying software applications for Vista. As of last week, about 2, 100 applications had been certified - up from 250 in January, Microsoft executives say.

Meanwhile, many IT managers are waiting for Vista improvements that will be included in Service Pack 1, a set of software enhancements for Vista that will have new drivers, security features and bug fixes. Microsoft says the software will be available in January.

Still, some businesses don't see enough benefits from the new software to go through all the trouble.

"We don't have any plans for rolling out Vista in our environment in the near future," said Gentry Ganote, chief information officer of Golf and Tennis Pro Shop Inc., which runs sports shops around the U. S. Instead, Ganote said his company is shifting more of its employees from PCs to more simplified devices known as thin clients, which he said will be easier for his IT group to manage.

Earth Tech Inc., though a big user of Microsoft software, doesn't see enough new value in Vista itself to justify upgrading its 8, 000 PCs, said Jim Walsh, its chief information officer.

Walsh, whose company handles infrastructure work that includes building roads and airports and managing water-treatment facilities, is studying whether software that runs on Vista - including the new version of Microsoft's Office software and software called SharePoint - offer enough benefits to justify a move to Vista.

And like his peers at many other companies, Walsh is concerned about problems arising from adding Vista to his company's IT system, which has a mix of both Microsoft and software from some 25 other companies.

"I'm generally personally afraid of the integration issues," he said. "Can the existing software I have run on it ? I have to make sure it does."

Such thinking is one reason why a significant number of businesses won't start the transition until next year, said Benjamin Gray, an analyst at Forrester Research. Still, with the gradual improvements to the infrastructure around Vista, for most businesses "it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when and how," he said.

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