A Ghost of a chance

It's no surprise that vendors cripple their bottom-of-the-line products to protect sales of their more expensive versions. But customers should at least have a ghost of a chance to know what capabilities they're getting and what they're not.

The Gripe Line has recently been hearing from customers of Norton Ghost 2002 Personal Edition, Symantec Corp.'s US$70 drive-imaging tool, who have been disappointed with the program's ability to work with Windows XP. Because Windows XP support is one of the main talking points for the 2002 version of the product, readers feel Symantec should make it clearer that the product's compatibility with Microsoft's newest operating system is significantly limited.

"I just upgraded to the 2002 version solely because it claims to support Windows XP," wrote one reader who had purchased Norton SystemWorks 2002 Professional Edition, a suite that includes Ghost 2002. "After a few days, I tried to back up a partition from a Win95 box to a file on my new Windows XP machine. To make a long story short, despite its claim of XP support, it will not write to an NTFS (NT File System) partition. According to a rather matter-of-fact note deep in their support Web site, (Ghost 2002) will install on XP; it just can't write to XP's partitions. That's support? No mention of an intention to issue an update or anything, just a statement that Ghost has never been able to write to NTFS."

Some readers suspect Symantec was deliberately fooling them into buying a product that wouldn't meet their needs in the hopes they would then feel compelled to upgrade to the more expensive corporate versions of Ghost. "My complaint is about false advertising or maybe, more accurately, bait and switch!" wrote a Ghost 2002 customer after finding he could not save an image across his small home network. "Since their ad campaign explicitly brags of compatibility with Windows XP, ... I was shocked to find that it works only by booting DOS on both machines. What I had expected was something like the Ghost 7 Enterprise edition I have used at the office. Instead, I got what, for me, is a virtually worthless product. I wouldn't have a problem with them crippling it this way if they would just tell you up front that it doesn't work with XP's file system. I could have just passed on it and decided whether I want to spend US$300 for Ghost 7.0 instead."

"They really should have called it Ghost Light," wrote another reader who has used corporate versions of Ghost. "At least then we wouldn't be so disappointed to see how it's been crippled."

After exploring Symantec's Web site, I could see how potential customers might be led to expect more than they were getting. Other than an obscure footnote that says it runs under DOS and a comparison checklist that indicates Ghost 2002 doesn't support storing or retrieving images from a network drive, the product descriptions give every reason to think it fully supports NTFS, the file system XP shares with NT and Windows 2000. It's only by searching for the problem in the support documents that you realize Ghost cannot save images to XP's native format.

Symantec officials say they are not trying to fool anyone and that Ghost 2002 is as compatible with Windows XP as technically savvy customers would expect. "Being XP Logo Certified means that we can reliably clone the XP file system," says Thom Bailey, Symantec's group product manager for Norton Ghost. An imaging utility like Ghost has to work outside the operating system, he points out, and Ghost 2002 is no different in that respect from other versions of the product. The ability of the corporate versions of Ghost to read and write to a drive partition with NTFS is dependent on their ability to recognize those partitions as mapped drives on a client/server network. As a consumer-oriented product, Ghost 2002 Personal Edition does not support client/server networks such as NetWare or Windows NT.

Symantec did not restrict Ghost 2002's network support with XP in mind. "Network support has been removed for the last two generations of the consumer product," says Bailey. "We were seeing a lot of abuse by people who didn't realize the product is licensed just for a single computer."

Of course, Symantec has every right to limit what features it provides for $70. The question is whether it then has the right to promote the product as supporting Windows XP. Previous consumer versions of Ghost might have had the same limitations in terms of working with NT or Windows 2000, but those operating systems weren't bundled on consumer PCs like XP now is. When customers see a package on the shelf that says it supports XP, they are likely to be somewhat disappointed to discover they have to boot up DOS. And when a user who is familiar with Ghost from the corporate world sees that same package, the message that it's not the product they know needs to be clear.

Bailey acknowledges that the message may not be as clear as it should be. In fact, he says Symantec toyed with the idea of calling the consumer version Ghost Light. "I want to extend an olive branch or two to your readership," says Bailey. "One is that we will get some verbiage on the Web site to indicate more clearly how the product is licensed. Secondarily, we are going to look at providing a subset of the corporate product with more robust functionality (than the consumer version) for very small businesses, VARs, and system integrators."

Fair enough. It's all right that Ghost 2002 is a shadow of its former self, just so long as customers know that's what they're getting.

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Ed Foster

PC World
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