The fear of the unknown can immobilize many a technology buyer, and this fear certainly applies to operating systems. Microsoft’s recent launch of the Vista OS may spark those feelings for many, but in this case they can probably relax.

It’s the most tested Microsoft product in the history of the company (it’s probably been in development longer as well), and if there are major problems, as with Windows XP, Microsoft will develop fixes and send them to affected systems for free.

This may seem an overly sunny view of life with Vista, but it’s been backed up by the reams of documentation on the OS and demonstrations thus far: its key capability is to make things simpler for users, and there is no shortage of new features ready to assist in the effort.

For example, searching functions have been made simpler and yet, behind the scenes, they are far more powerful. Search functionality is integrated throughout the OS, so you can look for a document in a folder, an application — even in the Start menu — or for you could search for a Control Panel item. When searching on the Web, Windows Internet Explorer 7’s Quick Tabs make it easier, and a lot more obvious to see and access the searches you’ve completed. You can also switch efficiently between any pages you’ve opened up on your screen.

IDC research recently determined that organizations in the public and private sectors spend as much as $14,000 per knowledge worker per year in lost productivity when their employees can’t find the information they need to get their jobs done. That’s according to Phil Sorgen, president of Microsoft Canada Co.

But these are the kinds of problems that Vista has been designed to mitigate, “with functionality like the new pervasive search that allows people to look for anything on their computer, across the company or on the Internet,” says Sorgen.

Besides searching functions, collaborating with co-workers is another area where Vista could shine. Meeting Space lets users create a collaboration environment for between two and 10 people. “It’s a face-to-face. It’s not Live Meeting, it’s not one of these server-hosted things, you don’t need any infrastructure. You don’t even need a network where you want to do it,” says Elliot Katz, senior product manager at Microsoft Canada Co.

If a connection is not found on an existing network, Windows Meeting Space will set up its own ad hoc wireless connection. Users can join sessions that someone else has set up, or start their own and invite others to join. The point is that very quickly, workgroups can collaboratively edit documents, while passing messages or files to each other at the same time.

Tackling your insecurities

Besides simplicity, Microsoft has really aimed through Vista to make corporate data safer. Improved authentication and access control are in place so that devices, applications and data are only accessed by the people that management has decided will access them. Data protection has also been increased using encryption technology. As well, your IT department should be better able to stop malicious hackers and viruses with an improved firewall, Windows Service Hardening, which helps prevent important Windows services from being used for abnormal activity, and with new security features in Internet Explorer 7.

On the security theme, Vista beta customer the Toronto District School Board sees itself as much better able to control the PC activities of its student population. Vista’s improved administrative control over the applications installed at its schools will help.

“The students should not be able to load unauthorized applications onto the workstation,” says Craig Kirchner, project leader, Vista implementation at the TDSB, in a release. “They should be limited, or kept from making system changes, and Windows Vista helps to accomplish that. At the same time, we can enable access to device drivers so that technician visits are not required when specific types of hardware must be installed.”

Get your backup

Of specific interest to small businesses, Vista allows new types of backup. File backups can be burned to a CD, DVD or other device. Backups to the network are possible too. But not only can you back up files on your PC, you can also back up your entire computer with an image-based backup, meaning on a device such as an external USB hard drive.

“It just makes it so much simpler,” says Katz. “There’s just one spot to go, and it explains what the differences are between a restored image, your entire computer, or backing up individual files. You also have the ability to create a restore point.”

Restore points, which generally are produced once a day, were part of Windows XP. The difference now is that you can enable them to occur either at an operating system level or file level. Then, if something goes wrong with your PC, you can go back to a point in time when it was working properly, and go on from there. “This enhanced backup capability is something that the small organization never does, so the restore points, the ability to get previous versions, are tremendous boons,” says Katz.

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