Get Ready for Vista

Upgrade is powerful but will take time to master.

BY RANDOLPH P. JOHNSTON
May 1, 2007

  

 
 

 

et ready, accountants! Like it or not, your basic Microsoft computer tools—from the operating system to all the workaday applications—will soon be history. Replacing them will be the recently introduced Vista operating system and Office 2007, which includes, among other things, Word, Excel, Access, Outlook and PowerPoint.

The upgrade is not just cosmetic. Vista’s look and feel is much different from the Windows version it’s replacing, and its underlying structure has been completely redesigned, making it more powerful, faster, safer and unfortunately—at least until users get used to it—more difficult to use.

Microsoft has extended support for the XP version through 2014—but it will charge users for that support after April 2009. This means some 845 million users worldwide will either have to upgrade to Vista or eventually work with an unsupported application.

In many ways Vista and the Office 2007 tools resemble the Microsoft products you’re currently using, but in many other ways they’re significantly different—both visually and functionally. Visually they are quite beautiful, even resembling the appearance of Apple’s OS X operating system. But the beauty is not just skin deep: Behind it are brains that can significantly support accountants in more and better ways than Windows XP and Office 2003.

I wrote this article on a computer loaded with Vista and Office 2007, and to my delight—and relief—once I got familiar with some of the new processes I found they worked much better than the former versions on the same machine. This article describes many, but not all, of the new features and focuses on those that clearly benefit CPAs.

  Vista Licensing Options

If you decide to upgrade to Vista, consider licensing your first 10 copies via the Microsoft Professional Accountant’s Network program. Membership costs $299 per year, and for that you receive as much as $20,000 worth of fully licensed software to use in your practice. For more information go to www.microsoft.com/cpampan.

Beyond the first 10 copies, consider Microsoft Open Licensing programs to allow your organization to update to the latest Microsoft technology all at one time rather than as machines are purchased. These programs, known as Software Assurance, are available for two or three years of upgrade coverage and will generally cost you less than purchasing new copies of Vista or Office. An additional advantage is that an Open License acquired for a user in the firm also can be legally loaded and used on their home computer.

Beware. In an effort to stop software pirates from using unregistered copies of Vista, Microsoft has added a kill switch to the upgrade. If the software recognizes that the user is using an illegal or unregistered copy, Internet Explorer and Office will be disabled and files cannot be saved or printed.


VISTA’S POWER

One major productivity gain you’ll spot almost instantly is Vista’s desktop search capability. With just a few typed-in clues, it locates every matching file, folder, program or e-mail in your computer. The feature is accessible from anywhere on the computer—even when you’re in Internet Explorer. Its speed and agility exceed the current leading third-party desktop search tools, Google Desktop and Copernic.

For example, I wanted to locate any mention of my JofA editor, Stanley Zarowin. As I was typing the first letters of his name, zar , Vista snapped into action, and even before I finished typing, every mention of his name in my computer was displayed for instant access (see screenshot below).

If you seek a software application on your computer, it will not only locate it instantly, it will even launch it when found.

Quick Switches. Although Vista continues to use the Alt+Tab command to switch between applications, tapping those keys now also produces a thumbnail view of each application with a glimpse of the open file.

Additionally, if you hover the cursor over an icon in the taskbar, you can get a larger view of the underlying file, making it easier to work with multiple files in the same application.

Alternatively, pressing the Windows Key+Tab produces an array of all the thumbnails of open applications, which is the most obvious example of Vista’s new Aero interface features (see screenshot).


Improved Security.
After years of embarrassment over its leaky security, Microsoft focused on building better protection into Vista. For example, if you try to install a program or adjust a PC-wide setting, the User Account Control pops up and demands your password. While the pop-up may annoy you, it’s an effective security tool.

Microsoft also added Windows Defender , which includes malware and spyware protection. In addition, it included System Service Hardening , a feature designed to protect system files and provide new barriers to viruses. However, as good as these protections are, you still need antivirus software.

Another key security feature accountants will appreciate is BitLocker , an encryption tool that encodes either selected files or your whole drive. This will prevent anyone from reading your data if your computer is stolen or lost.

BitLocker is available only in the two high-end versions of Vista—Ultimate and Enterprise—and your computer must contain a special microchip, called a Trusted Platform Module (TPM), which is built into many new computers; it can be added later as a thumb drive plugged into a USB port. (For more on the several versions of Vista, see the sidebar “Choosing a Vista Version.”)

  Choosing a Vista Version

The first decision you must make when buying a new computer or upgrading your current machine is selecting the version of the Vista operating system right for you and your organization. Like Windows XP, Microsoft is offering the new system in multiple flavors.

Most smaller CPA firms—those with no more than 100 partners or no more than three offices, and businesses with sales of less than about $20 million—should consider the Ultimate edition; the Enterprise edition is for larger organizations. For a list of the versions and their prices, see the sidebar “Windows Vista and Office 2007 Pricing.”

Microsoft claims the new software is so flexible it can run every application with ease, but I found some significant exceptions. Microsoft critics are focusing on these flaws, but it’s likely that most, if not all, of these incompatibilities probably will be resolved during the year. However, if you do plan to upgrade soon, you’d be wise to research Vista’s compatibility with your applications, or better yet, test your applications on a new machine with Vista preloaded.

For a computer to run Vista effectively, it needs more powerful hardware than many computers today have. Minimum needs include a 64-bit CPU (a dual processor would be better), 2 gigabytes of RAM, at least 256 megabytes of video RAM (actually 128 megabytes for each monitor if your computer runs multiple monitors), at least a 7,200-rpm, 100-gigabyte hard drive and, if you want to use the built-in Vista security, a special TPM module.


Quicker loads.
Most impressive is Vista’s speed—both boot-up and application loading. On my Vista computer (a Hewlett-Packard nc6230 laptop with 2 gigabytes of RAM), Excel loads the first time in less than a second; successive launches are slightly faster. That’s compared with Windows XP, which took up to six seconds for its initial Excel load and two seconds thereafter.

Vista is a miser when it comes to using battery power. My laptop ran almost a full hour longer on the same batteries than it did under Windows XP.

Improved backup. With XP I felt a need to use third-party backup software, but Vista’s system is so effective I may rely fully on it. Not only can you schedule it to back up the entire computer, it also can handle customized backups. In addition it can perform backups to a network or a remote disk. And, of course, like XP, it can take “snapshots” of the entire system so, in the event of problems, you can revert the computer to an earlier date when the computer ran properly (see screenshot).

Gadgets Galore. In addition to the basic applications, Vista has the Sidebar , adjustable layers of single-purpose gadgets, including a foreign-currency calculator, a timer, a stock ticker, a headline feed, lists of contacts, a calendar and a notebook (see screenshot). In addition, other gadgets—for business and for fun—can be retrieved online.

Virtual folders. One of Vista’s most innovative features, which accountants may find particularly useful, is tagging . Consider this: Have you ever wanted to file a document in more than one place? To do that with paper requires multiple copies. But with tagging, all you need to do is label the document in several ways while storing just a single copy. The tags allow that single document to appear in multiple folder views, called virtual folders, and to be located using any of the different labels you gave it.

  Windows Vista and Office 2007 Pricing
Vista Version Full Product Upgrade
Vista Business $299 $199
Vista Home Premium $239 $159
Vista Home Basic $199 $99.95
Vista Ultimate $399 $259
Vista Enterprise (Volume licensing only) $296 (License +
software assurance)
 
Vista Starter Not currently scheduled
to be available in U.S.
 
Office 2007 Version Full Product Upgrade
Office Basic 2007 Only available through OEM  
Office Home and Student 2007 $149 No upgrades
Office Standard 2007 $399 $239
Office Small Business 2007 $449 $279
Office Professional 2007 $499 $329
Office Ultimate 2007 $679 $539
Office Professional Plus 2007 (Volume licensing only) $478 License Only $755 (License +Software Assurance)
Office Enterprise 2007  (Volume licensing only) $584 License Only $922 (License + Software Assurance)

If you intend to use Microsoft products, plan for a migration that includes staff training, the upgrade of hardware and a licensing strategy that allows you to stay current with updates. Microsoft makes its prices more attractive if you are on an Open License program, which includes the upgrade protection. These programs will allow you to use older versions of Office when appropriate (for example, if you haven’t trained your staff on Office 2007) and to receive new generations of Office when they are shipped with no additional charges.


POWER OF OFFICE 2007
Although Office 2007 applications are more powerful than any of the earlier Office tools, they will present the same adjustment pains you’ll face with Vista. The main problem is the new ribbon menus (see screenshot below).

Every major Office application (Word, Excel, Access, Outlook and PowerPoint) uses ribbon menus. Although I’ve been using the ribbons for more than a year (I started with the beta version), I still routinely have trouble finding some functions. The old XP/2003 menus are gone, so you can’t fall back on them when a tool or function eludes you.

It was no small challenge for Microsoft to design a user-friendly system for the upgrade when you consider that originally Word alone had only about 150 features; it now has more than 1,500. What exacerbates the user-friendly problem is that many functions have been regrouped into different menus. A saving grace is that the shortcut keys for most functions haven’t changed.

Once you start sorting through the many functions, you’ll discover the Quick Access Toolbar (see screenshot). If you press an Alt key, each of the ribbon bar elements reveals the shortcut keys to access the menu or function you want.

However, many critical functions, including menu items related to PivotTables , aren’t included in the ribbon menu; they’re only accessible from the small Quick Access Bar . At the time of this writing, I counted more than 600 functions that were missing from the ribbon menus.

File format. Office 2007 expands the use of XML for sharing data across different information systems; to make fuller use of XML, Microsoft had to redesign the coding for all Office 2007 files. In addition to wider applications of XML, the new design allows easy application of styles and formatting and it’s able to pack more data into a smaller space, reducing the load on data-storage facilities.

The traditional formats—Word’s doc , Excel’s xls , PowerPoint’s ppt and Access’s mdb —are replaced with docx , xlsx , pptx and accdb . Although the new Office recognizes the old formats, when an old file is saved in Office 2007, it’s automatically upgraded. For the moment, at least, that should not be a problem. But eventually files created in newer versions of Office may not be accessible with older Microsoft versions or will be prone to errors. Be advised that, if you work on files in the old format and choose not to convert them, you won’t be able to take advantage of many new Office features.

Warning. I have had some difficulty with both backward and forward compatibility—opening files that moved to and from Office 2003 and 2007. For more on compatibility problems and what you can do about them, see the sidebar “Dealing With Office 2007 Incompatibilities.”

  Migration to a Mac or Linux?

Does it make sense to migrate to a Macintosh or Linux?

It depends on whether you’re in industry or have an accounting firm. Linux not only costs less, but also is generally more reliable than Windows. The Macintosh is more user-friendly and stable. But most applications CPAs use depend on the Windows operating system. In fact, the major publishers of CPA software say they won’t support their application on any other operating system. Therefore, unless you have in-house support personnel who know the Mac or Linux operating systems very well, a switch is risky.

Users of most other applications have more choices. Many of your favorite Windows applications are also available in Mac versions. However, Office 2007 is not expected to be released for the Mac until later this year; the current Mac version is 2004. In addition, there are several methods available for running Windows applications on Linux or Macintosh computers, either through translation programs or by installing Windows as an additional operating system. But bear in mind that depending on the configuration, functionality may be limited. Also, the open source community has been effective in providing low-cost applications that can handle standard word processing, spreadsheet and other productivity functions.

The bottom line: If you’re in public practice and dump Windows, expect compatibility problems between your primary practice software and your productivity software. If you’re in industry, the compatibility problems can be fixed easily, and you’ll save lots of money, have increased security and your staff’s productivity will probably improve.


EXCEL’S NEW MUSCLES

Excel 2007’s table capabilities have been beefed up considerably. For example, with two keystrokes this table…

…can be changed with the help of this design menu…

…into this:

But more importantly, notice how Excel uses the titles of the table to replace the A, B and C columns.

Excel charting. Special attention is given to charts, making them more useful and easier to customize. Consider this stacked cylinder chart, which was produced from the above data with one additional keystroke:

Just one more keystroke added Conditional Formatting and produced this chart:

And with another Conditional Formatting choice the chart morphs to this:

PivotTables . One of Excel’s powerful but difficult to understand—and use—power tools, PivotTables , is turned into a friendly function that can be created and customized with a few keystrokes.

A WISER WORD
Word also is more powerful than its predecessors. For example, formatting a document is a snap. Just hover over a format button to produce a menu of 11 document styles (see screenshot).

Users of earlier versions of Word usually either avoided the cumbersome Mail Merge feature or turned it over to the clerical staff. The new Word simplifies the functions, and a merge can be completed in about a minute.

OUTLOOK
An accountant’s professional life is guided by e-mail and calendars, and for many, Microsoft Outlook is an essential tool. The 2007 version has been beefed up and fine-tuned to make it more effective and easier to use. As you can see from the screenshot below, Outlook now includes the daily task list as well as all the future tasks at the bottom of its display. In addition, tasks can be dropped directly onto the calendar.

Search capabilities. The Vista search function, which was described earlier, extends to Outlook and all e-mails sent and received. In the past we advised our clients to ignore the Outlook search function because it was slow and inaccurate, but Outlook 2007’s search resolves this issue.

POWER FOR POWER POINT
Say goodbye to those moments when, during a PowerPoint presentation, as you pause to elaborate on a slide, your computer single-mindedly calculates it’s been idle long enough and nods off to sleep. The new Presentation Mode not only keeps your computer (and your audience) awake, it blocks uninvited dialogue boxes and screensavers.

In addition to new fonts, clipart, animations and graphics, the PowerPoint designers added the business graphics support contained in Excel.

Organizational charting also has been made easier to create and customize.

  Dealing With Office 2007 Incompatibilities

Despite the millions of hours of testing by Microsoft and many thousands of beta volunteers, Office 2007 has its problems. For all its power and versatility—or maybe because of it—Office 2007 is suffering from occasional and unpredictable compatibility problems with its predecessor, Office 2003. On those occasions, it can’t read files saved in Office 2003.

To be sure, Microsoft is scrambling to solve the glitches, and there’s every expectation that with each patch it sends out the number and frequency of the problems will diminish.

While it’s nice to know the problem is being addressed, what do you do in the meantime if you’ve purchased a few new computers or, even worse, converted your entire office to the upgrade?

Although there is no immediate or total cure for the compatibility problems faced by early users, there are things you can do to mitigate the problem until Microsoft clears out the bugs. Here is what I’m advising my clients:

Start with a test-bed machine. Either buy a new computer with the Vista operating system and Office fully loaded or install the software on an existing machine that fits the Vista specifications. Be sure to use Windows Update so all Vista and Office fixes and patches get downloaded and installed in a timely way. And don’t neglect antivirus software; keep it updated. If you have a network, attach the Vista machine to it.

Migrate data from your older computers to the new one. To speed up that exercise consider purchasing a migration tool, like the Belkin Easy Transfer cable for Vista or Laplink PCMover. In addition, although there is a built-in capability to migrate your applications files to the Vista machine, I don’t recommend it. Instead, install them on the new computer using the original disks.

Now use the Vista machine as a test bed to be sure all your applications work correctly. Once you’re satisfied everything is working well, then—and only then—consider upgrading the rest of the machines in the office.

Be aware that special-purpose software publishers are working on making their applications compatible with Vista; many will be available before year-end.

A File You Can’t Read
If you receive an Office 2007 file via e-mail or on a CD and you can’t read it, save it to your network server or store it on a USB memory stick. Then try to open the file on the test-bed machine and save it as an Office 2003 file. Don’t worry if you receive messages about features or functionality that will be lost during this process. As a practical matter, you don’t have a lot of choices so just proceed with the save. You have the option of viewing, printing or editing the file directly on your Office 2007 machine. Save the converted Office 2003 format file back to your network server or to the memory stick so you can access the file from your production machines.

When you’re ready to make the switch on all your computers, completely remove Office 2003 applications, remembering to delete the file directories, too, and then install Office 2007. Keep at least one machine running Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Office 2003 to read Office 2003 files that can’t be read by Office 2007.

You can choose to keep both 2003 and 2007 versions of Office running on your machines, but keep in mind the setup is complicated. You must uninstall Office 2003, delete all Office directories, install Office 2007 and then reinstall Office 2003.

Important: You can have only one version of Outlook installed, so choose Outlook 2007, a significantly better product than Outlook 2003. Additionally, you can only have one version of OneNote; choose the later version.

A reference tip: Microsoft has developed an interactive command reference tool for Excel, Word and PowerPoint to help you move from Office 2003 to Office 2007. Once you load the tool, if you hover the cursor over an Office 2003 command, it shows you how to do the same thing in Office 2007. To find the tool, Google the words interactive command reference guide .


A BETTER ACCESS

For many accountants, Access, the Office database, is one of the most esoteric applications. While it still presents a challenge to the novice and experienced alike, Microsoft has attempted to make it more approachable. It has added and improved wizards to guide users through setup processes, and it has included more templates as a learning aid.

Clearly, Vista and Office 2007 are not just minor system upgrades. While there’s room for refinement—which surely will come—they represent a computer sea change. To be sure, Microsoft faces some threatening competition, not only from Linux or Macintosh, but from users sticking with prior versions of Windows—even without support. Likewise, as broadband speeds accelerate and the Web becomes more reliable, users may opt not to load tons of application software on their computers, but instead to access their word processing, spreadsheets, databases and presentation tools via the Internet. In the meantime, Vista and Office 2007 are the most viable alternatives for accountants.

Randolph P. Johnston , executive vice president of K2 Enterprises ( www.k2e.com ), Hutchinson, Kan., is a technology consultant. His e-mail address is randy@k2e.com .

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