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Windows 8, should you?

While it has been a while since I posted anything (I have been busy), I just wanted to reflect on my experiences with the latest Microsoft operating system, Windows 8 (and 8.1). I am not going to go into great detail, there are plenty of in depth reviews on the net, I am just going to quickly run through my likes and dislikes.

Firstly, if you are thinking about installing this on an older computer, check the manufacturer for Windows 8 specific hardware drivers first and if they dont exist, save yourself the hassle and dont install Windows 8.

As soon as I could get my hands on Windows 8 (through my soon to be removed Technet subscription), I upgraded my laptop. Big mistake. My Dell Precision M4500 was a bad choice to upgrade to (I have since wiped it and gone back to Windows 7). Apart from the Metro screen being a bit painful without a touch screen, much of the hardware did not have Windows 8 drivers and the resulting stability issues were difficult to deal with. I installed Classic Shell to bring back the old menus which, in my opinion, work far better with a mouse and keyboard. Eventually I gave up on my Dell.

I decided that I needed to get a touch screen device to really work with Windows 8 and bought an ex-demo HP Elitepad 900 G1 for a few hundred dollars to work with. This works very well for most things (it is not the quickest device but it is small, light, and it works). Metro is fine for the average end user who is just going to read email, browse the web, play a few games and listen to music but for a power user, it is hopeless. I keep having to go back to the desktop to do any actual work and the metro screen cant hold enough links on one screen for my liking. Microsoft should really branch Windows or default to a proper Desktop interface for the business/Pro focussed versions. The metro apps Windows ships with are not particularly great, but luckily there are plenty of options. Forcing Windows 8.1 users to log in to their computer with a Microsoft ID is just wrong, why does MS need to know everything you do on your PC?

An annoying quirk is not being able to easily manage wireless networks. I found this out when a client called me asking what their wireless key was and I just wanted to grab it from my saved connections. You can’t, now you need to use the command line or a third party app.

Personally I dont recommend it for business use but for home users, it is fine as long as you have a touch screen. If you dont, stick with Windows 7. It is no surprise that HP ships all its business computers with Windows 7 still….

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Microsoft BPOS vs Google Apps – My Move to “The Cloud”

You have probably heard the term “The Cloud” and how it is the way of the future for IT but what can it do, how does it work and why should you consider it? Google and Microsoft are two companies that are investing in web based services for business. I have tried both in a couple of different ways and discovered that you get what you pay for.

Many small businesses I work with have grown from nothing with minimal I.T. knowledge until they have reached a point in their business life cycle where things start to get harder. Changes to systems become painful to implement, things are no longer working properly and they blame their I.T. While it can be argued that I.T. is in fact the problem, it is more due to poor implementation of I.T. rather than technology itself. Usually when this happens, it is time for some centralisation of services and files. Enter the cloud.

Historially, the usual step at this point was to hire an I.T person, spend a few thousand dollars to put in a server, upgrade the network, and start to think about how it is supposed to work and make it happen (central Anti-Virus, central shared storage, network backups, perhaps an internal email server, domain controller, automated policies etc). This is still quite common, I am still doing these types of rollouts myself but is it really necessary? A few years ago, yes it was but now there are some alternatives with Cloud Computing (such as offerings from Google Apps, Microsoft BPOS, HyperOffice, Salesforce and many more). Basically the business decides what it needs from a storage, communication and collaboration perspective and simply subscribes to these services online (in “The Cloud”).

There are some down sides to working in the cloud. You need a reasonable internet connection, your data access will be slower than a local server, some functionality may be limited, security and privacy is not totally in your control etc. There are also many up sides to operating this way. You dont need to finance a server (monthly fees are often far easier to fund), you can quickly and easily scale the services with your business growth, your data is managed and backed up for you, you can access all your services from anywhere on any computer with an internet connection and more.

My own use of cloud computing for business began with Google Apps for business, the free version, and only with email. Using Google Apps I was able to synchronise my desktop, laptop and mobile phone email and calendar at all times, something that is only possible with some central control (eg a server). I then began to use Google Docs for file storage. The free version of Google Apps is very good for a free system but moving up to the Premier edition gives more storage space, no ads and access to the Google Apps Sync tool for Outlook. This works pretty well and I was happy until I began my first client implementation…

The problems with Google Apps began, in part, with the slow internet connection upload speed in the office. Trying to push gigabytes of email into the cloud took a considerable period of time during which a significant amount of email just was not available. It took nearly two weeks before email sync stabilised.

Problems then followed with synchronisation between Google Apps and mobile phones, in this case iphones. Email worked fine but there were many issues with contacts, they would fail to sync, often they would delete off the phones and then re-sync, contacts were not replicating back from the phone to Google Apps and then to the desktop (contacts added to the phone would be deleted on the next sync) and a few other quirks. The contacts sync was only solved by manually exporting all contacts from all locations to a local CSV file, manually editing it to ensure all formatting was consistent, deleting all contacts from Google Apps directly, waiting until the sync deleted them from the phone and desktop then importing directly into Google Apps from CSV. Once this was done, contacts began to work reliably.

The next issue was the email limitations that applied, mainly the 10MB message limit. Another client had problems with the number of recipients per email as well. The final straw though was when a key email account was shut down for 24 hours without warning “due to suspicious activity”. There is then no-one to call and no way to speed up getting the account unlocked. There is supposed to be an email address, ‘[email protected]’ that you email to fast track an unlock but it didn’t seem to help.

I have since moved to Microsoft BPOS and after migrating with the $10USD/account service from Migration Wiz and moving my MX records, I am now happily online with Exchange and Sharepoint for $17AUD/account/month. The online setup was not the easiest, especially as the local BPOS system is managed by Telstra but now it is operational, it is working without a hitch. There is no need for a sync client for Outlook or phones (that include MS ActiveSync) and a “Single Sign On” app runs on my PC’s so I dont need to log in each time. It is roughly 3 times the price of Google Apps (when you include Sharepoint as well) but based on my experience so far, it is worth it.

I have since begun moving some clients to Microsoft BPOS and the feedback has been very positive. Personally I now seamlessly sync a desktop and laptop PC, a Macbook, an iPad and an Android phone (I finally ditched my old Nokia E72, actually I ditched my telco, Three, after their dismal performance recently since the merger with Vodafone). I have a number I can call where a real person can help me and after a recent minor glitch where one of my accounts became corrupted and needed to be recovered (one of a lucky 3 people in the entire world apparently), both Telstra and Microsoft’s performance in fixing the situation and keeping me informed was excellent.

Google Apps is pretty good, it is pretty reliable but its lack of true business support (no phone support, far too restrictive email limits and no options if the system locks down an account) means that, for now, I dont recommend it for business use. For a very small business or family able to work within its limits, it is great but in my opinion, it is still some way off being truly ready for business use.

I have also moved a client to HyperOffice with reasonable success although their reliance on IMAP for email gets pretty slow for users with multiple large accounts connected. Their business model is far less “self service” and they are there to help with a well integrated and executed system that is well suited to a widely dispersed workforce. It is pretty much all web interface driven which has its quirks as well. It is more expensive but their goal is to remove the need for IT staff and they are targeting a different market than Microsoft or Google.

Microsoft Office 2010

I have just installed Microsoft Office 2010 on my work laptop. This may or may not have been a good idea, time will tell.

After attending a launch breakfast of Office 2010 a couple of days ago in Melbourne, it looked good enough that I had to give it a go, if only to be able to support my clients as they move up to it.

As I dont tend to use any add-ins and I run Windows 7 x64, I decided that Office 2010 64 bit would be the way of the future. If you have any add-ins, more than likely they wont run in 64 bit.

The first issue I had was that I found that I did in fact run an add-in, the Google Calendar Sync application to maintain my appointment calendar between my desktop, laptop and mobile phone. Google doesn’t support Office 2010 yet until the official public release (regardless of the fact that open/volume licenced businesses have had access to it for a month already) so I had to find an alternative. I did a quick Google search and found GSyncit, a cheap ($14.99USD) Outlook plugin that supports x64 Outlook 2010 for syncing calendar, contacts, tasks and notes with Google. Even better, it works.

First Impressions: The addition of the Office “Ribbon” to Outlook is a bit different but pretty good, grouping by conversation (like Gmail has had since day 1) is nice, the ability to clean up redundant messages in a conversation and ignore conversations is also useful. Powerpoint’s built in image and video tools and functions are a great improvement and the web publish feature is great for quick small presentation sharing in real time. Word looks pretty much the same, I would need to have Sharepoint available to take advantage of its multi-user simultaneous editing features (minimum 5 users @ $10USD/m each for Microsoft hosted Exchange and Sharepoint, could be worth it in the future when I start employing staff. It turns out that in Australia, the MS hosting is managed by Telstra (bad) but they allow a single user @$16.95AUD/m. Will give it a go).

Overall, it seems to be an improvement on Office 2007 but most likely, unless you are a power user or want the latest, there is probably no need to upgrade for the sake of it, you only use a fraction of any of its apps anyway. One feature which may be of benefit is OneNote is now standard across all versions of Office 2010. In Australia there are still (as of June 10th 2010) some Office 2007 Small Business edition retail boxes going very cheap (~$230AUD) that are eligible for a free upgrade to Office 2010 Professional which is the cheapest way to get it (cheaper than an update licence). Update June 13th, this software is nearly impossible to get now, looks like the word got out.

I will edit this post with more updates as I find out more about it, good and bad.

Update: Where did my auto complete addresses go??? It tuens out Outlook 2010 no longer uses the NK2 file that I have so diligently copied, backed up and restored over the years so none of my auto complete email addresses are there any more.

To import .nk2 files into Outlook 2010, follow these steps:

1. Make sure that the .nk2 file is in the following folder:
%appdata%\Roaming\Microsoft\Outlook

Note The .nk2 file must have the same name as your current Outlook 2010 profile. By default, the profile name is “Outlook.”

2. Click Start, and then click Run.

3. In the Open box, type outlook.exe /importnk2, and then click OK. This should import the .nk2 file into the Outlook 2010 profile.

All my auto complete email addresses are back now. Happy me.

Update: I just discovered that Outlook will send an email from whichever account you are in at the time regardless of your default settings… I have also signed up for Microsoft BPOS (Exchange Online) so have a full exchange server behind my Outlook instead of Google. It seems to work well, albeit difficult to set up. Will post about it specifically another time.

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Mac

Apple make the only other mainstream desktop alternative to Windows (although Linux on the desktop is starting to make some inroads).

As an IT consultant, I have two Windows machines (Win 7 and XP), a Core 2 Duo Mac Mini with Snow Leopard and an Ubuntu Lucid machine as well as a VMWare machine with Windows, Linux and an Openfiler servers on it. I have also just picked up a 3 year old core duo macbook from a client after a hard drive failure, he didnt want it back.

For the end user, it is purely a personal preference issue. Ignoring the awesome efforts of the Apple marketing department to convince you otherwise, either Windows or Mac will do what you need. There is nothing that you can do on a Mac that cannot be done on Windows and vice-versa. If you use Windows at work and need to work from home, especially if you have some specific work requirements (an a work IT department that can offer some assistance if needed), moving to a Mac at home can make things a bit harder between locations.

You will pay anything from a little more to a lot more for the equivalent Mac system but you will get a very solid and stable desktop. It will also be prettier. Personally I really dislike the feel of the Mac keyboards, both the desktop and laptop ones but as I mentioned earlier, it is a personal preference issue, they work but I use a Microsoft keyboard and mouse with mine. You will have to spend extra to upgrade the warranty if you want a 3 year warranty on the hardware (recommended for business use) where proper business grade Windows desktops and latops should come with 3 years already (not all of them). Mac’s are, by design, more secure than Windows PC’s but (regardless of what the Apple marketing department says again), they are not immune to online threats. Failure to take similar precautions on a Mac that you need to take on a PC is not good idea, especially with the prevalence of cross platform vulnerablities such as some recent examples in Java, Javascript and PDF’s.

There tends to be more software available for the Windows platform, especially open source and free software. Mac users tend to pay for more extras more often. That said, a lot of the usual free software I use on Windows is also available for the Mac (Filezilla, Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird, The Gimp, VLC). The Plex media centre application is exceptional, it is clean and it works but doesnt support TV. Macs can be a bit less upgradable than the equivalent PC’s in certain configurations and they are not as easy to work on (try replacing the optical drive in a Macbook compared to a Dell Latitude and you will see what I mean. How to videos to open a Mac Mini include, credit cards, fish lifters and pizza cutters). That said, the hardware is reasonably high quality and matched to and tested with the Mac operating system (which is Unix based) so you should not have to search for drivers or run into too many compatibility issues. You can run Windows via Bootcamp or virtualisation if you need to. One big thing though, Macs and PC’s share many common components such as hard drives, RAM, CPU’s etc. Dont assume that your Mac is infallible, they die too, quite regularly I might add. Apple have made it easy to back up your Mac for a reason!

I dont yet think that Mac are fully business ready. Sure they will do most things but when I am looking for a suitable business platform, onsite support is vital. I dont want to have to take a warranty claim to a shop. Interraction with Windows domains is pretty good but still not completely smooth, Exchange email does not have full functionality on the Mac and many small to medium businesses run Windows domain based networks. Being locked into proprietary hardware configurations is also not ideal. Any business rolling out large numbers of machines will shop around for the best deal. With the hardware locked to Apple only, this is not possible with Macs compared to the myriad PC options.

One other issue you may face with Mac is the Mini Displayport. While Displayport and Mini Displayport are open standards (Apple helped fund Displayport development and have preferred the mini Displayport for their hardware), hardware support from third party vendors is still pretty weak. While this is fine if you want to spend a LOT on a decent large Mac Monitor, use of other screens is a little harder. You need to either spend an extra $45 AUD for a DVI or VGA adapter (a Mac one), or find a monitor with Displayport and use a Mini Displayport to Displayport adapter (not common yet) to use them natively. High end Dell screens support Displayport and Dell and HP business grade laptops and projectors have the full size Displayport options but unless you simply must have the (very beautiful and very expensive) Mac screens on your PC, few Windows users are going to pay the massive premium considering you can buy five 24″ 1920×1080 screens for less than the price of one 24″ 1920×1200 Mac screen.

The size of updates is significant. I recently had my Mac Mini notify me that some updates were ready. I was expecting a 100MB or so update, especially since my Mac was straight from the shop, you can imagine my surprise when 1.3GB of updates was required to bring my machine up to date. I thought the Windows Vista/Windows 2008 Server combined SP2 patch was excessive at just under 500MB. The bulk of this update was a minor version update for OSX from 10.6.2 to 10.6.3. Make sure you have decent internet speed and data available or turn off automatic updates!

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