Windows Vista: Hit or Miss with Small Business

Wednesday Feb 20th 2008 by Jamie Bsales
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It’s been about a year since Microsoft released Windows Vista to the retail channel, and so far the reviews remain mixed. Some small business owners have found virtues, while others prefer the comfort of good ol’ XP.


After half a decade of development and more than a few (expected) delays, Windows Vista was released to retail customers a year ago this past January 30.

In addition to improved security, a slick new interface, integrated search and hundreds of other features, Vista also came with fairly demanding performance requirements, slow boot-up times, sluggish performance and (expected) bugs.

So how is Vista faring among small businesses a year after its launch? As with many Microsoft products that came before it, Vista evokes a classic either-love-it-or-hate it response.

Migrating, Not Flocking
Considering it had been five long years since the debut of Windows XP, many industry watchers had expected an avalanche of pent-up demand to propel Vista. But a combination of stiff hardware requirements—the operating system (OS) works best in a machine equipped with at least 2GB of RAM—and lackluster reviews kept many would-be upgraders on the sidelines.

As Laurie McCabe, vice president of SMB insights for Access Markets International-Partners (AMI), a New York-based research and consulting firm specializing in small and medium-size tech markets, points out, “Vista is slowly but surely replacing XP in small business.” In her research, seven percent of small business owners reported that they have at least one PC now that is running Vista.

If that’s not exactly an avalanche, chock it up to the way small businesses buy machines. “Small and medium businesses usually by in a more ad-hoc way,” says McCabe. “We see 25 percent of small businesses and 40 percent of medium-size businesses planning to upgrade at least some of their PCs to Vista. But it’s not a complete overhaul—it’s as machines need to be replaced.”

McCabe points to three main reasons that have kept many business owners within the more familiar confines of XP. First, there are companies with custom application written for XP. Second, since not all the PCs in a business are going to be replaced, many business owners are loathe to have some PCs running Vista and others running XP. Finally, reports in the media and on blogs about bugs and incompatibilities spooked many business owners. “The last thing a small-business owner needs to deal with is an operating system problem,” notes McCabe. “They prefer to wait until the kinks are ironed out.”

On the Sidelines
Indeed, one of the biggest question marks business owners had as they approached the Vista launch concerned compatibility: Would Vista work with the legacy hardware and software in which small businesses had invested? To its credit, Microsoft had drivers for more than 78,000 devices and components on Windows Update at the time it launched Vista.

Software compatibility was a tougher nut, and most of the initial rants on Web sites blasting Vista centered on software that wouldn’t run or that wasn’t officially supported under Vista by the developer. While the overwhelming majority of XP-compatible software applications worked just fine, the worry was enough to keep some small business owners from switching.

That’s the position in which Dr. Richard Levine found himself. As a principal physician of Phoenix Ob-Gyn Associates LLC, a medical practice with four offices in southern New Jersey, Levine was concerned about how Vista might impact the GE Healthcare Centricity suite on which he runs the business. “I have more than 60 terminals running Centricity. Are they going to be compatible?” he asks. “Until XP gets totally outdated, it’s just too much work for too little benefit.” (By the way, Microsoft is currently working with GE Healthcare to become a Certified for Windows Vista partner, but right now Centricity is officially supported only under XP.)

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Experiencing the Benefits
While some business owners have taken a similar wait-and-see attitude, others that tried Vista have liked what they found. For example, Keith Martelli is the CAD Manager for Martelli Architects, a six-person architecture firm based in Red Bank, New Jersey The company’s computer fleet consists of seven desktop PCs and two notebooks plus a server running Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 and Microsoft Exchange Server 2003.

A Windows XP shop, Martelli started doing research in 2006 on how Vista might help the firm run more efficiently. Martelli contacted Silicon East, an IT and network solutions company specializing in small to medium businesses in the New York-New Jersey area. Silicon East was able to get Martelli Architects into Microsoft’s early-adopter program for Windows Vista.

The company deployed Windows Vista Business on one desktop computer and one laptop computer in late 2006—months before it was originally released by PC manufacturers, and more than a year before the operating system’s retail launch. “We had a few issues with hardware drivers at the beginning, but we were able to resolve those fairly quickly,” says Martelli. “We were only using Windows Vista for a few weeks before I was convinced we should be rolling it out across the entire company.”

Why the enthusiasm? Martelli points to Vista’ Aero interface as one of his favorite enhancements over XP. “The interface is a great innovation. It’s remarkably easy to navigate my computer’s desktop and our network resources,” he says. Martelli especially likes the Windows Flip 3D feature, which shows a preview of what’s running in each open application, instead of just a program icon. “I can search my open applications quickly without having to minimize any of them.”

Martelli also appreciates Vista’s integrated search capability, which can find any file or folder on the network by simply entering a keyword contained therein. As the person who provides IT support for the organization, Martelli also likes Vista’s improved connectivity and remote-management features.

He plans to have all of the firm’s PCs switched to Vista by the middle of this year, and he’s already thinking about how the OS might improve the way people in the firm work. “We are going to have at least one tablet computer that will be running Windows Vista Ultimate,” says Martelli. “We want to take advantage of the Windows Vista Business functionality, plus advanced media capabilities to make high-resolution media presentations to clients.”

But for those of you still sitting on the fence, the mid-March release of Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) should allay some concerns. In addition to previously released Windows updates, Microsoft reports that SP1 will contain changes focused on specific reliability and performance issues (including improved file copy operations), add support for new types of hardware (such as 802.11n Wi-Fi), and enhance support for several emerging standards (namely the exFAT file system). Fortunately for buyers, most PC makers continue to offer both XP and Vista on their business PCs. So if you are ready to switch, go ahead. If not, XP is still a viable option.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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