What will Microsoft Vista do for small businesses? It will make the bankrupt solvent overnight. It will take a mom-and-pop outfit and turn it into a Fortune 500 giant within a year. It will change sloppy business processes into efficient best practices that would make a Harvard MBA drool.
OK, maybe not. But it does offer some pretty decent features.
Moving beyond the hype, Vista, in all its permutations, is here to stay. At some point, every small business owner will have to decide which version to buy and when to make the switch.
"Small businesses, just like larger businesses, should see Windows Vista as a next-generation client operating system that they will eventually adopt," says Al Gillen, an analyst at IT consultancy International Data Corp. (IDC) of Framingham, MA. "The when and why to drive adoption will vary for from organization to organization."
So let's take a look at Vista's different versions and the decisions that various-sized small businesses have ahead them.
Option One Move to Vista Home Basic
There are four versions of Vista that concern small businesses Home Basic, Home Premium, Business and Ultimate. There are a couple of others such as Starter (a very basic and affordable version designed for people in countries with developing technology markets) and Enterprise, which requires a full-fledged IT department to operate.
If your one- or two-person business has only the most basic computing needs, you might get by with Home Basic, which is by far the cheapest option (around $100 upgrade, $200 new). This version is good for e-mail, Internet browsing and basic document creation tasks QuickBooks would work fine on this platform, as would other such applications.
Like all Vista flavors, Home Basic comes with a wealth of security upgrades. This includes a firewall that blocks both incoming and outgoing threats (XP only addresses incoming threats and ignores traffic generated by a virus that is pushing out e-mail to your entire address book, for example). Home Basic also includes Windows Defender, a decent spyware and virus program that may give enough protection for basic needs.
The cool thing about Home Basic is that it incorporates a fine search tool. Instead of the sluggish search capabilities of XP, Vista has the latest high-speed search technology inside. Ask for a word in the document, the date a picture was taken, etc. and you have a list of possible files in moments. Further, these search capabilities can be accessed from just about anywhere within Vista through a search pane that appears in virtually every window. All searches are stored should you wish to use them at a later date.
Option Two Move to Vista Home Premium
There is one drawback to Basic, however, that may sway even the small, low-tech company toward Home Premium. All versions of Vista except Home Basic come with Microsoft's sexy new Windows Aero interface. Aero helps you find your way around the operating system via 3D animated views of all open programs and documents. You can even flip through these rapidly in 3D. It's kind of like buying that new car because of the DVD player or CD player you don't really need it, but most people fall for it anyway. And it sure looks cool.
Home Premium, which costs is about $240 new, $160 upgrade, has another feature that might make a difference to companies with basic graphics needs. Windows Media Center offers basic photo and video editing functions and the ability to quickly organize large quantities of audio/visual files. Premium also contains features that make it easier to synchronize and share files between a laptop and desktop, and to better manage wireless and security settings.
The downside for the small business, though, is that Home Premium contains so many neat graphics and media features that it may become a distraction. Who wants their employees using it to store MP3 music files, videos from MySpace or worse.
"Home Basic and Home Premium are consumer-oriented products," says IDC's Gillen. "For some small businesses, it is possible to use these products, with Home Basic being the preferred product unless the company is in the business of producing some form of media."
Option Three Move to Vista Business
Vista Business would seem the obvious choice for small businesses. Certainly, companies with more than a handful of people should look beyond the home editions. It contains everything you get with Home Premium, with the welcome exception of the Windows Media Center features.
Like the Home editions, it has all the search features, spyware/virus safeguards and provides warnings of impending hardware failures. But it adds a few more bells and whistles such as backup and better networking capabilities. For larger operations, it can be downloaded via a system image rather than by laboriously copying every file from a CD. For a company with 100 PCs to upgrade, this is a handy feature that will save days or even weeks. In addition, it improves upon the access rights controls in XP so that you can keep employees from accessing data that they shouldn't.
Of particular note for small businesses, it includes Small Business Resources a how-to guide for computer maintenance and troubleshooting that should prove valuable to bosses stuck with the IT hat, or for companies with a relatively untrained or green person holding down the IT fort. It costs about $300 for the full version or $200 for the upgrade.
"Windows Vista Business will be the workhorse product for small businesses," says Gillen.
Option Four Move to Vista Ultimate
Windows Vista Ultimate is a superset of all the products; that is, it includes everything that's in the other three versions (including Windows Media Center) as well as advanced features from Windows Vista Enterprise. Bitlocker, for example, lets you encrypt a hard drive so that even if it's stolen, no one can access the data. Vista Ultimate costs about $400, with the upgrade version for close to $260.
"It is unlikely that Windows Vista Ultimate with its higher price will be widely used by small businesses except in rare situations such as a computer used for presentation purposes in a conference room," says Gillen. "The rank-and-file PCs only need Windows Vista Business."
Option Five Stick With Windows XP
If your company gets along fine with your existing XP systems, there may be no reason to change to Vista immediately. Any decision with regard to technology should be based upon how it will impact the bottom line. If XP is performing fine, and existing computer systems are doing their jobs adequately without impeding employees in their day-to-day tasks, XP is good enough.
Be aware, however, that the business world is moving to Vista. According to IDC, 400 million people worldwide will switch to Vista by the end of 2008. By then, many people will be forced off XP due to application issues.
QuickBooks, for example, is a likely candidate. The latest version already has a few Vista-only features that will probably make it difficult to run QuickBooks from one server that several employees need to access. And by the time the next version of QuickBooks comes out in the fall, no doubt the latest features will all require Vista.
In all likelihood, security vendors will follow suit with software that works best on Vista. These applications may be backward compatible with XP, but they won't work as well, and may be a pale shadow when compared to their full Vista-enabled glory.
So get used to the idea that, eventually, you are going to have to upgrade to Vista. Whether it occurs today or in two years time, it is going to happen. Make the decision on when to move and which version to use based on sound business logic rather than a hasty decision to sample the latest and greatest.
Think Hardware First
Certainly, the variety of flavors and choices expressed above demonstrate that individual preference will play a major role in which version of Vista people select. When it comes to the "when", however, small businesses would probably be wise to let the upgrade decision be driven by hardware and not software.
"For the smallest companies, with just a couple of PCs, a watch-and-wait approach could make the most sense to see how the adoption is going," says Ray Boggs, a small business analyst at IDC. "Many of these firms are telling IDC that they will move to Vista during their next round of PC upgrades, but they won't be accelerating the process."
Reason: there is no killer app in Vista it just does most things better than XP but not enough to make it a must-buy-it-right-now purchase. So it's hardware that should decide. If the office computers are three or four years old and causing you problems, it's probably time to move to Vista. But be warned, Vista has far greater requirements than earlier operating systems. Memory, for example, is going to be an important requirement.
"Microsoft, I believe, specifies 500MB, but I'd say that 1 GB is a more sustainable configuration," suggests Gillen. "An older display may not support Aero, but that will be a non-issue for most business uses."
Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.
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