Operating Systems


One of the downsides to the Vista upgrade that I mentioned awhile back was that certain programs (like QuickBooks) would have to be upgraded to work with the new OS, thus increasing the cost.  However, one of the new features planned for Windows 7 is an “XP Mode” (XPM), currently in beta testing, which allows XP-specific applications to run inside the Professional, Ultimate and Enterprise versions.  Interesting move by Microsoft to entice businesses to upgrade, but will it fulfill its promises?  Should an upgrade decision be based on that?  I don’t think so.

An April 26, 2009 post on the PC World blog warns that XPM could be more trouble than it is worth.   It quotes Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner Inc., as saying that there are two downsides.

“You’ll have to support two versions of Windows.  Each needs to be secured, antivirus-ed [sic], firewalled and patched. Businesses don’t want to support two instances of Windows on each machine. If a company has 10,000 PCs, that’s 20,000 instances of Windows.”

The other downside, he says, is that XPM could be used as a crutch that would lead companies not to be sure that their applications are Windows 7 compatible.  Eventually, the upgrades need to be made, as Microsoft is phasing out support for XP.  In addition, XPM would continue to bog down Windows OSs by making them still run on “legacy code,” which has been a problem for the OS for over a decade.  Finally, XPM does not run on all hardware, so you would have to be very careful about what machines you buy.

My advice?  Bite the bullet now and upgrade your software with the move to Windows 7.  You will be surer of hardware and software support, and will leave behind performance and stability problems created by running legacy code on the latest OS.  It is an investment that will pay off.

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I am currently shopping for a netbook, which has me scanning blogs and web sites for advice on hardware and software features.  In this search I ran across a great post on Laptop Magazine‘s blog that set forth some very good pointers. although I do not agree with all of them.  As to hardware, they said:

  • RAM: Go for at least 1Gb.  I agree.  Many netbooks sport 512Mb, which may be all right for Linux, but definitely not enough for XP.  Even if you do get Linux, you will be thankful for the memory overhead;
  • Screen: Get a 10″ model, not the 8.9″.  If you are over 40, this is certainly good advice, if you want good screen readability.  Much larger than 10″, however, and you are defeating the purpose of getting a netbook;
  • Battery: Get a 6-cell battery, rather than a 3- or 4-cell one.  This can result in significantly longer battery life (4-6 hours rather than 2-3 hours), which is always a boost to the portability you are going for in a netbook; and
  • Hard Drive: The post espouses hard drives rather than solid state drives (SSDs) and ones with RPMs of 5,400 rather than 4,200.  This, they state, is because hard drives offer better write performance than SSDs.  As to the capacity of the drive, I would not look to get too much; less is better.  Remember, many people use netbooks for cloud computing with Google apps or other web-based solutions that do not result in much local storage. along with web browsing and e-mail.  Again, you are using this for work, which produces documents and spreadsheets that do not take up nearly the room of photos, video, or music (which are not the recommended use of netbooks).  In short: netbooks are not intended for a lot of local data storage or huge client applications.  Get the memory you need, but do not go overboard.

Where I really disagree with the post is on the issue of the operating system you choose.  They do warn you off Vista (which is good advice), but they steer you towards XP over Linux (which is not necessarily the best advice).  They mention software compatibility as a reason, but you must ask yourself this: if you are just using the netbook for e-mail and for web-based solutions, why is XP necessarily better?  Linux does the same thing with no compatibility issues (so you might have to learn to use Firefox, Opera, or Chrome rather than IE; big deal), and runs faster on the same hardware.  For most tasks, OpenOffice is just as good as Microsoft Office when Google Docs won’t do or you don’t have access to the Internet.

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I have posted several times before about how I see Linux entering the law office market, whether through big firms or through the back office (i.e. the servers).  However, it has become apparent in the past few months that there is another inroad developing that may fast-track the OS into the legal market.  This is the introduction and rise of the netbook.

More and more laptop users (and road warrior lawyers) have been discovering that they use their portable computers mainly for e-mail and web based applications.  Thus people have been buying netbooks as secondary machines in order to have lightweight, highly portable computers for travel (here is a great post on the development of the netbook that explains this phenomenon).  These netbooks often come with 512Mb to 1Gb of RAM, slower, more energy efficient microprocessors (Intel’s Atom for the most part), which means that the OS that runs on it must be lean and mean, a term seldom, if ever, applied to a Microsoft product.  In fact, Vista, if it does run on a netbook, runs poorly, and Redmond has, as a result, made XP available to hardware companies for another two years.

Linux, on the other hand, because it can do more with fewer resources, is really the better OS candidate for netbooks.  Also, because the machines are designed (and intended) to be used with web-based applications, they are more platform-independent, and thus do not run into the problems that Linux presents on the lawyer desktop (e.g. the lack of compatible verticle market apps like case management and bankruptcy software).   The lack of cost for Linux also keeps the overall price down for netbooks and can make them more attractive.

I have been using the open source Mozilla Firefox web browser for years now and have found it easy to learn and use, which also goes for their e-mail client, Thunderbird.  Google Docs and other web-based apps are already being used by many lawyers, and even if you need an offline solution, OpoenOffice is a great alternative that is easily downloaded and installed on the netbook (at least in the Ubuntu distribution, which is what is being installed on most Linux netbooks).  The learning curve is not steep at all, and the increasing usage of Linux netbooks by lawyers may well overcome the phobia to change and encourage them at least to consider using Linux on their office systems.  We can only hope.

I have written here many times about the Linux operating system, and more specifically the Ubuntu distribution, with which I have been experimenting.  As a tech hobbyist, the Linux option has interested me for awhile, but I have not seen how it can really replace Windows or Mac in the law office (outside the server) without using Wine, Crossover, or VMWare for verticle market legal apps like case management or bankruptcy software.  However, I am certainly not the only one struggling with this.  A reader, Williamson Day, recently put me on to an Ubuntu Linux Discussion Group for lawyers that might well be worth a look if you are trying to see whether a switch to Linux will work for you.

In previous posts I talked about the fact that some businesses may want to wait to upgrade from Windows XP until Windows 7 comes out (which many pundits have predicted will be in the 4th quarter of this year, despite Microsoft saying it will be in early 2010).  In a post on its blog yesterday, PC World quoted Microsoft’s Gavriella Schuster, a senior director of Windows product management, as saying that Windows 7 is no “magic bullet” for businesses.

“Moving from XP to Windows 7 is not a magic bullet . . . You have the same level of application compatibility from XP to Windows Vista or Windows 7.”

This means that many applications, like Quickbooks, will still have to be upgraded with the OS, whether you move to Vista or Windows 7.   Shuster went on to say that customers should examine their application and hardware environments closely to see which would be the best fit for them. “It really depends on the environment.”  Microsoft actually went further than that in advising businesses by launching a “Windows for Your Business Blog” in which Ms. Shuster offers advice to businesses on what upgrade path to choose.   In addition, Al Gillen, an analyst for IDC, was quoted in the PC World post as saying,

“It will essentially be about as painful for customers to move from XP to Vista as it will be to move from XP to Windows 7 . . .  a migration from Vista to Windows 7 will be far easier.”

Certainly firms need to look at their upgrade strategy soon, especially since Microsoft is moving Windows XP out of mainstream support on April 14, relegating it to what they call “extended support.”  What does this mean?  According to PC World, by Microsoft policy, mainstream support delivers free fixes — for security patches and other bug fixes — to everyone. During extended support, all users receive all security updates, but non-security hot fixes are provided only to companies that have signed support contracts with Microsoft.

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I have posted before about Microsoft’s Windows Home Server (WHS) as a server in the small law office, along with Network Attached Storage (NAS).  Many of you might be asking why they should invest in something like WHS when a less expensive NAS might do the trick.  What makes WHS worth the extra money?   Well, Microsoft has posted a good article on its WHS blog that provides a checklist of features that may help you decide whether WHS is worth the additional investment.  Check it out!

Much has been discussed since Microsoft’s release of Windows Vista on its security features and the User Account Control (UAC) in particular.  This one seems to top many lists of Windows annoyances as an intrusive dialog box that makes you click on a button when you want to do just about anything with your system.  It is critical to the prevention of malicious bots invoking system changes automatically and without your knowledge.  Thus, says Microsoft, you disable it at your peril.

As you may know from reading this blog, I have been experimenting with the Ubuntu distribution of Linux both in my personal and professional life, having installed it on a laptop and a desktop in my basement.  One of the things I have learned from this is that Linux, which is known for its stability and security, has a feature much like UAC when it comes to installing new software and changing system settings: it pops up a dialog box and requires you to enter an administrator’s password.  Thus you have to do more than click on a button with your mouse here to do these things.  I say this to ask you to consider two things when thinking about Vista’s UAC:

  1. Microsoft is not alone in requiring this sort of thing of users; and
  2. Other operating systems consider this to be an important feature for the protection of the security of a computer.

Microsoft has taken a lot of heat for security holes and problems with its OS.  Now it has implemented something to address this that is not unique to them.  UAC may well be annoying, but please cut Microsoft a little slack as you curse out that dialog box every time it pops up.

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