A pretty little Vista

Microsoft's new Windows is a looker.

It's been five long years since Microsoft booted up a new operating system and three since updating its popular suite of productivity software. So gird yourself for the sales pitch you're bound to hear in the coming weeks for the company's new Windows Vista OS and Office 2007 packages–both launched for businesses Nov. 30 and consumers Jan. 30–because it might sound a bit excessive for what, in the end, is just software. Microsoft has not reinvented the PC; it has merely made it easier to use.

“A lot of it is eye candy,” says Naumi Haque, a research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group, based in London, Ont. “For the majority of users, what they have is already fulfilling their needs, so there's no immediate drive to upgrade to these products.” And, Haque says, it's no different for corporations. A majority of Info-Tech's clients say Windows XP is exceeding their requirements–and, in some cases, even older versions of Windows suffice. The same goes for Office.

But if you're a Microsoft fan, you can't help but like the amount of work that has gone into Vista. For example, Vista automatically indexes everything on the hard drive and lets users quickly search for files and applications. A resizable preview panel reveals a thumbnail image of a file, and let's you scroll through its entirety before opening it. Also impressive is Vista's use of metadata tags, which are descriptive information about a file, such as the author and subject matter. The tags allow users to slice and dice search results in a variety of ways and customize how they sort categories of similar files. For example, growing digital music and photo collections can be organized on-the-fly by date, a star-rating system or personal tagging terms.

Much of Microsoft's focus on Vista for consumers has centred on solving digital-content overload and making the PC more fun to use. And, of course, there are updated 3-D glossy and translucent graphics. For business customers, Vista has tried to make IT departments happy with a more secure OS that's easier to back up and lock down. Vista also simplifies how corporate users adjust settings for presentations and find networks.

Similarly, developers of the Office 2007 suite of applications (Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, etc.) have directed their efforts toward some of the peripheral programs, such as SharePoint, to improve collaboration, workflow and document management for governance purposes.

But the big change everyone will notice in Office 2007 is what Microsoft calls the “ribbon,” which replaces the familiar drop-down menus and floating palettes. The ribbon presents all the functions in buttons along the top of the screen, organized in contextual tabs such as Table and Review. It will take some getting used to, but it's supposed to put everything in plain sight and standardize the functions across all programs. The idea is that everyone, not just the experts, get more out of the applications.

And you might. But there is no killer feature that makes Office 2007 an essential purchase. “The decision to buy new hardware is going to be more important for the consumer than the actual decision to upgrade to Office 2007,” says Haque. When it does come time to get a new computer, you won't miss the old Windows or Office–but you won't have that choice anyway.

Andrew Wahl