Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Hawking Vista

And maybe Office 2007 as well? It would seem that would be an acceptable title for the conference I just finished attending this week – the NCACPA's TechFest Winter 2007 conference. Those who have followed some of my past musings know that I regularly attend the TechFest conference each December. Despite the fact that its usefulness continues to erode in my opinion each year. This year's conference was no exception to that rule. I really had not even planned to attend this year, but because of the change in my job situation, some of my planned CPE's were no longer relevant, so I had to come up with an alternative.One thing about attending the conference, no matter how poor it apparently is striving to become, is that it does tend to renew and reinvigorate me with regard to technology planning. It also tends to give me some really good paths to explore in finding alternatives to the traditional Microsoft stack that so many people and organizations seem to be stuck on.

Before going into some details about the conference sessions, a quick note about logistics. This year the conference moved from the Grandover Resort to the Embassy Suites Greensboro. As I discovered, the Embassy Suites has a wireless network setup that covers the meeting rooms – no real surprise there. Unfortunately, you have to pay to access it. $9.95 for 24 hours. What is up with that? It would have been nice to blog directly from the conference (and it would have given me an opportunity to test out the battery life of the new laptop I got – a Dell, blecch!) and to be able to check e-mail and upload some files for stuff I'm working on. Alas, I suppose I consider it a matter of principle not to pay for that service. I've been to plenty of hotels that do not charge for wireless service. Interestingly, their policy was so bad, even the speakers had to pay for the wireless access they were using for their presentations during their different sessions. So a huge BOO to Embassy Suites for trying to charge (especially so much) for Internet access.

Day One

So why do I say the TechFest could just as well be “Hawking Vista”? Because it seems like that is what they are focused on doing. The first general session was “Technology Update”. As the speaker discussed during the session, studies have shown that about 65% of businesses had no plans for migrating to Vista from XP and they even noted many people are going back to XP. But they decided to throw in there that those figures are for 2007 and they are convinced that once SP1 comes out, businesses will want to make the switch in 2008. They went on to cover hardware needs which were truly whopping.

I found it somewhat amusing that the slideshow the initial speaker was using was a PowerPoint file that basically consisted of a white background with black text on each slide, though a few toward the end including some screenshots or other minor graphics. While it sounds bland, I'd say it probably was an effective presentation in that it did not distract and they did not try to pack in all the bells and whistles. Of course, it begs the question – what was it about the presentation that required such a huge investment in office suite software and operating system and hardware costs? Nothing that I could see. In fact, I could probably take my old laptop with PCLinuxOS on it and use OpenOffice.org to run it just fine. Overall, having such an advanced system was truly overkill.

Another funny thing (to me at least) was the desktop for Vista. Along the right side of the track were a bunch of “gadgets” - things that display on the desktop. I noted that two of them were a calendar and a clock. I guess the clock and calendar downn in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, in the tray icon, were not enough? I thought another interesting one was the weather gadget. I suppose it was ok, but on my Windows laptop (XP), I use The Weather Channel's desktop weather icon tray thingy – much less intrusive. I was also getting a kick out of some of the “features” they were trying to show off. For instance, they were showing something called “3D Flip” for switching between applications or hovering over the taskbar tasks to see thumbnails of the application. Both of these were supposed to show you a miniature version of the document you are working on. Do you think that worked? Nope. And especially noteworthy was that some of the documents were Office 2007 documents (which is supposed to work really well with Vista).

They did cover a lot of the downside to Vista (why it doesn't really seem to register with them is beyond me). One of those downsides they were talking about was the problem with device drivers. That got me to thinking about a recent contrast I had between the Windows world and the Linux world. At my new job, I got a new HP2605dn printer – same printer that I have at my home office. At my home office, I connected the printer to the network and my Linux computers are setup to use it via the network (I don't recall the setup process for my SuSE machines, but don't recall any problems). On the Windows PC's, I had to install HP's software to detect the printer on the network, but it pretty much worked correctly (albeit a rather long install process). At the new job, we initially tried to connect the printer on the network. Now I don't know why, but the IT folks did not want to install the HP software – instead, they were trying to install the drivers from a print server. We managed to get it to print a couple times, but the desktop kept losing track of the printer (actually, I think the entire network did). After about 3 days of working on it (and effectively 3 days without a printer), we finally just plugged it into the desktop via a USB cable. Fine for me, though I cannot print from our remotely hosted ERP application and now that I have a new laptop, I cannot print from it either. Meanwhile, at home I wanted to print something from the old laptop with PCLinuxOS. Went to install a printer, let it scan the network, and it correctly identified the HP2605dn, connected to it, and setup all the drivers. Probably took me a total 3 minutes to be up and running. 3 minutes versus 3 days (and at the end of those 3 days, it didn't work and had to be worked around). Does anyone wonder why I like Linux so much better?

Back to the conference. During the paperless office session I attended, the presentation kept jumping out of the slideshow mode into the design mode. Speaker never could figure out what it was doing. Nice. I attended another session on “Welcome to Office 2007” (only because the session on business continuity and disaster recovery was canceled). This did give me a chance to get exposed to MS Office 2007 and start trying to get a handle on how OpenOffice.org will compare with it. It was during this session that one of the speakers admitted they are paid by Microsoft, but his recommendations were independent of that (wink, wink!) [more on this below]. Anyway, the information about the ribbon interface was interesting and I can see where it might be a benefit to a user if they used it for long enough. Of course, the whole premise of implementing the ribbon (per these speakers) is that most office suite users will never find and make use of the features MS Office includes, so the ribbon was designed to expose more of this. I did take a lot of notes and will be going back through those and comparing withOpenOffice.org to see how they compare. I have already found a couple items where OpenOffice.org is equal to what MS Office is doing or where OOo exceeds MSO. Will have to write about that later. I will acknowledge that the charting features in MSO look to still be more advanced that what OOo offers, even with OOo's most recent updates.

Worth a couple hundred dollars? I doubt it can be justified. In fact, one of the “downsides” to Vista and MSO 2007 the speaker indicated is the fact that any productivity enhancements achieved by staff will not offset the cost to implement, so there will never be a positive ROI. Never be a positive ROI? That doesn't sound too good in a world where everyone is trying to achieve improvements and positive ROI for investments in technology.

Day 2

Day 2 of TechFest started with a session called “Managing Digital Documents – Working with PDF”. Apparently this really meant “Advanced Adobe Acrobat Tips” as we spent about 97% of the session going through Acrobat functions and how to create PDF's with Acrobat. During the other 3%, it the speaker (the same one who did our opening session and the session on MS Office 2007 and paperless office) acknowledged that open document formats are preferable to proprietary. Seemed kind of incongruous with the rest of his presentations. I also thought it was interesting that in talking about “competitors” to the PDF file format, he listed ODF. I suppose he considers ODF a “competitor” because both file formats are designed to allow open access, especially long into the future so one can be sure of continued access to their documents/data.

Next up was a session on “Cool Tech Tools”. Of course, most of this focused on Windows apps. At least it may help me with my Windows PC's. More importantly, it helps me identify the types of applications I need to be looking for alternatives that are either F/OSS or preferably, both F/OSS and run on both Linux and Windows. During this session, I also noted the system monitor gadget on the speaker's desktop. With about 6 “applications” running (at least 3 were different MS OneNote windows, IE, PowerPoint, and Outlook), his RAM usage was pegged at 43%. This was on a machine with 4GB of RAM. Can you say, “Wow!” That's close to 2GB for that load. Even when he had it down to just one PowerPoint file open, it was reporting 31% usage. Good thing he didn't have a laptop with a mere 1GB of memory.

Probably the bigger stunner during that session was when the speaker indicated/claimed that they are not paid by any of the vendors that they list in their materials or discuss during sessions. This seems to directly contradict the claim the day before that they are paid by Microsoft. Now I don't know who was telling the truth.

After lunch, there weren't really any good choices, so I decided to attend a session on “Vista – What You Really Need To Know”. A few interesting tidbits from that session (nothing really to do directly with what the speaker was covering). First, the speaker made a comment about (paraphrasing) “those of you who don't like Microsoft are really shooting yourselves in the foot” by not looking at Vista. I think that was primarily aimed at Mac users, but maybe they read my criticisms about not covering Linux and F/OSS more. The speaker also indicated that Vista just “won't crash” and it “continues to run”. Based on what I've been reading around the Internet and judging from the trouble people have been having, I don't think that is true, but if it is, welcome to my Linux world!

During the session he showed us the Reliability and Performance Monitor (as part of a demonstration of UAC). A quick scan as he was showing stuff indicated at least one software failure per day. There were some other issues as well. But hey, it continues to run! He also mentioned that part of the initial “slowness” of Vista for new users is that Vista contains artificial intelligence code that is learning how one uses their PC. So, if it sees you use MS Office everyday, then it will eventually get to the point where it starts preloading MS Office so that when you get around to opening it, the system seems a little snappier. Kind of makes me wonder whether it will do the same thing with alternative (nee competing) products like OpenOffice.org? Preload? Just leave it to load the whole thing (making it seem slower)? Intentionally slow down OOo? Be kind of nice to have some test machines just to measure that kind of stuff.

Our final session was a security update. Of course, where I would expect to cover generic or broadly applicable security issues, this session focused entirely on how to secure a Windows PC, Vista, and how to lock down MS Office documents and e-mail you send to people. Since I was like the SunCom folks with lots of time to think about other things during the session, it got me to wondering what happens if I receive one of these IRM enabled e-mails from someone?

During the session, he did try to open an MS Office 2007 Excel spreadsheet in MS Office 2003 (using the free converter Microsoft provides), but the file would not open. I suppose technically the problem was that the converter would not load (as if the end user who cannot open the file will care). He also referred to the Firefox web browser as Foxfire (several times). So sad.


So it was another TechFest, another frustrating couple days in Windows-land. There were a few good things that came out of the conference – when folks would get off the Wintel wagon. Some info on policy development. A few products to check (though not as many as normal). One nice thing is it always gives me a head full of research into other subjects, especially things where I can compare MS Office with OpenOffice.org. I'll report on those results separately.

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