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Taking in vista

In recent weeks, there seems to have been a considerable amount of hype bordering on scaremongering appearing in certain other industry trade publications about the risk of IFAs not being ready for the launch of Microsoft’s Vista operating system and the need to take urgent action to prepare for it.

Reading some of what has been written elsewhere, I was immediately reminded of Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army running around urging Captain Mainwaring: “Don’t panic, don’t panic” while doing exactly that at the slightest provocation.

I am delighted to see that Money Marketing has not indulged in such propaganda but for the benefit of those advisers who may be concerned, I believe it is important to get this issue in context.

For anyone who has not come across it yet, Vista is the new name for the next version of Microsoft’s operating system. This product has previously been known by the code name Longhorn and is currently scheduled for release towards the end of next year. Longhorn has actually been due to arrive for some time now. Indeed, there are some features that were expected to be delivered as long as five years ago which may finally appear.

Microsoft is very clear that this will be the most significant product release for them since Windows 95. This means that you can expect a massive amount of hype and brouhaha when the product finally does launch. If it is anything like Windows 95, given the current expected launch date of late 2006, you should probably expect to see the product sometime in mid-2007. Originally scheduled for release at the start of the year, Windows 95 finally saw the light of day on August 24,1995.

It is too early to talk about what will or will not be in Vista as, given the length of time between now and the promised release date, promised features could easily be removed or new ones added. It is reasonable to assume there will be some significant enhancements to the system but there will equally be a need for advisers to weigh these against any costs involved.

You can be sure that Vista will need a more advanced minimum specification from the computers it runs on compared with Windows XP. However, that is not to say that these will necessarily be any higher than the specification of a machine you might buy today.

With a vagueness that makes me think some of their staff must previously have been employed at the FSA, all Microsoft will say is that a “Vista Ready PC” will need to have a “modern” central processing unit, without defining what “modern” is, 512 MB of RAM and a graphics processing unit that is capable of supporting the Windows Vista display driver model although they do not specify what this will mean either.

Like any other software developer when they release new products to a wider user base, there are inevitably bugs which appear that have not previously been identified. As a result, most major businesses these days will not migrate to a new Microsoft operating system until the release of the first “service pack”, this is a polite term for something that fixes the most important of the bugs in the product. This is a prudent approach and is one that can ensure that you are not left struggling with an operating system where someone has had a really good idea but missed something obvious which can be highly frustrating. Some businesses even wait for the release of Service Pack 2 although this is probably a little excessive.

Microsoft have made it quite clear that applications running on Windows XP can be reasonably expected to run on Vista.

Probably a more important issue is how long are Microsoft going to continue to support earlier versions of its operating system. Microsoft operates what it calls a support cycle for its products. Broadly, this means it offers mainstream support for the products for five years from launch and secondary support for a further five years.

The company announced in January that although the support cycle for Windows 98, Windows 98SE and Windows Millennium Edition was due to come to an end on January 16, 2004, paid-for support has been extended until June 30, 2006. At first glance, it may appear unfortunate that support for the old products will cease before the release of Vista. However, for the reasons given above, this should not really be a problem.

In recent years, the cost of hardware has fallen dramatically while at the same time the amount of processing power of new PCs has increased dramatically.

If anyone is still using a computer that is so old that it originally came with one of the earlier versions of Windows mentioned above, they are probably waiting ages for them to carry out simple tasks.

For the vast majority of adviser businesses, the question of which operating system to chose is far more likely to be addressed automatically if they replace their hardware every three to four years. In my experience, best value for money is achieved by buying PCs which are a little under the leading-edge specification but where the volume of processors and other components are being produced in sufficient numbers that there is no scarcity premium for the very latest specification. Bargain basement systems usually become obsolete quickly and can be a false economy.

Sometime over the next couple of years we will undoubtedly see a new operating system from Microsoft. Its need for ongoing revenue streams makes this a certainty. This is bound to enable new functionality and particularly improved communications capability.

It is equally certain that software providers will develop applications which will have the potential to use such new functions to deliver additional services to their adviser clients but this is not going to happen overnight and no one needs to rush into a decision today or even this year.

If there is a decision to be made now, it is probably to pay a little bit more for extra memory or a more powerful processor for any new hardware and increase the likelihood that it will be more than capable of handling the new operating system when it arrives.

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