Frankly Speaking: Big opportunity

Vista could be just another upgrade; or it could be the last OS we'll ever need to worry about

Why do I suddenly feel like that unhip guy in the Macintosh commercials?

At least we agree on one thing, Mark: Microsoft will ship a lot more Vista to IT departments than Apple will send of Mac OS X Leopard. No doubt about that. And no doubt why: Apple doesn't sell to corporate IT. That's not even Microsoft's fault. Back in 1985, Apple launched "the Macintosh Office" (the LaserWriter printer and AppleTalk network) with a TV commercial showing corporate users as lemmings marching off a cliff. The Mac's corporate fortunes never recovered. "Long-held prejudices" indeed.

Yes, Vista will have the volume. But exactly what effect it will have will depend on IT people. Vista could be just another upgrade. Or it could be the last operating system we'll ever need to worry about.

Look, we all know why upgrades are miserable. Upgrades break things. Operating system upgrades break lots of things. They break client/server applications, because the clients won't run. They break standard desktop- productivity apps. (Gee, did you wonder why Office 2007 arrives on the same day as Vista?) They break the spit-and-bailing-wire scripts we write to connect processes. Worst of all, they break users' productive habits.

So before Vista goes live, IT shops will pour time and money into finding out what it will break and what to do about that. Just like in the upgrade to Windows XP. Which was just like the upgrade to Windows 95.

That's Vista as just another upgrade. It may not be your Great Vista Fiasco; it won't have much impact -- just lots of expense without much benefit.

Here's a different option: We can get off that upgrade treadmill. We can use the Vista upgrade as an excuse to start chopping out the operating system dependencies in our applications.

I know you think that's a good idea, Mark. You said so a year ago, when you argued that browser-based applications are the wave of the future and IT shops should replace as many desktop PCs as possible with thin clients.

You were wrong about thin clients, which just don't give users the flexibility they need. But you had it half right.

Turning enterprise client/server applications into browser-based apps cuts to the heart of upgrade misery. With browser-based apps, user front ends don't have to be written for one operating system and its quirks. They can be written in AJAX or Java, and then even when the operating system changes, only the browser has to be upgraded.

At that point, an operating system upgrade starts to be about how we benefit, not what it breaks.

But we don't have to stop there. While we're standardizing on browser-based clients for our enterprise software, we can also decide on standard file formats for desktop productivity applications such as word processors and spreadsheets.

For example, suppose IT specifies that word processing documents are to be stored on network drive K: in Rich Text Format. That way, we insulate our documents against some vendor's decision to change file formats every time a new version of its office software comes out.

But we can get other advantages from that standard file format, too. We could scan everything going onto K: to make sure it's not corrupted or virus-infected; if it's not a valid rich-text file, it doesn't get stored. We could protect documents and keep the lawyers and regulators happy.

We could even automatically rename and keep backup copies of each document instead of deleting them -- like a network-drive version of that "Time Machine" feature you love in Mac OS X Leopard. It's a good idea, and it's not something we have to wait around for Microsoft to implement in some future version of Windows.

Can IT do all this overnight? Nope. And browser-based apps and file format standards won't solve all upgrade issues. There's still training, broken user habits and those spit-and-bailing-wire scripts. Oh, there's always fiasco potential.

But if we make prying ourselves loose from things that lock us in the focus of this Vista upgrade, our next operating system upgrade might be a lot smoother. And less painful for us and for users. And a lot less expensive.

Vista might really be the last operating system that gives us much to worry about. Now that would be an upgrade with impact.

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Frank Hayes

Computerworld (US)
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