Training our sights on Vista

Bucking the system

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Opinion How long would it take to train you to be a Vista trainer? How about: how long would it take you to learn how to train Vista trainers?

Does it matter? Surely, it wouldn't take long. And even if it takes a month - surely there are plenty of trainers!

It turns out that the figures are hard to glean. After a while spent Googling, you'll probably give up, as I did, and start waving your hands in the air - but if you do that, and look around you, you'll find that a lot of people are waving their hands in the same way. Some of them are worried, and think we may have a problem.

Vista, in a nutshell, is different. The first time I loaded it, I had a moment of blind panic. Nothing was where I expected it to be - I felt like one of those unfortunate victims of "Changing Rooms" who go away on a holiday, and come back to discover the kitchen is now the playroom, there's a bathroom in the solarium which is where there used to be a nice patio garden, and the bedroom is pink, with no cupboards. And where is the kitchen?

The problem with the changes in Vista is that some of them really seem to be just whimsical. Someone decided it would be "cool" to get rid of pulldown menus. Someone else decided that clicking on a "pearl" was more useful than having individual menus. And someone decided that security required certain practical changes - and all, taken together, make it different.

Can you learn to use it? Of course. Is it "better" than XP or Windows 2000? Probably. People who get used to it say they like lots and lots of the new features; better security, more stable, safer Web surfing, "tabbed" browsing, a "new clean look". They say that if you get into trouble, all you need to do is remember to try the powerful new desktop search tool; it will find anything.

But the question I'm curious about is "how long?"

At a recent round table pre-launch, organised by Microsoft, three of us - old hacks - and senior MS sales execs for Vista, all discussed the changes, and their impact. One of our number - a very well respected consultant and journalist - summarised what all the hacks have noticed: "Even skilled Windows users are finding it scary...They push back from it. Instead of welcoming the changes, they are rejecting them."

His assessment - which many agree with entirely - is that corporate users will take a "wait and see" approach, and that it will be at least a year before corporate take-up of Vista reaches 5 per cent - probably 18 months to two years.

That's not Microsoft's view. Microsoft staff are apparently puzzled by the scepticism of outsiders. They talk enthusiastically about seeing corporate sales driving home sales. They speak of executives being given Vista at their offices, and then wanting the same "great" experience for their home machine.

Most think this is a delusion inside Redmond. But suppose Microsoft knows something we don't? Suppose this time next year, the Secret Weapon turns out to win the war?

The secret weapon is, of course, the subscription update service. It automatically upgrades corporate systems to "the latest version" and it has started with the first Trojan Horse - Internet Explorer version 7 - which is now rolling out onto user machines even if they are still running XP.

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The question that hasn't been asked is this: how many XP users will be able to adjust to the new Windows, without expert help?

There's a chance, obviously, that it will all go swimmingly. It's possible that people will look at IE7 and think that all the new user interface features really work for them, and then look at Vista and say: "Hey, more of the same! That's for me!" That's the view, anyway, of my contacts inside Microsoft.

Then there's the alternative.

That's the world in which people are familiar with XP, and look at Vista and say: "Help!" It's the world where they say: "I can't find the menu to close Word!" or "where's the 'Refresh' button gone?" or "Can't I just keep the old system?"

Well, the truth is, you probably can't. There are a lot of IT developers who are in love with features of Office 2007, and SharePoint services, and who are going to join Microsoft in pushing the new systems out. But they may be living in the past. Specifically, they may be living in the 1900s - pre the Millennium Time Bomb.

Remember the Y2K scare? All our computers were going to be exploding (as any Mission Impossible viewer will know, silicon is highly inflammable when software crashes) as they skipped back to the mid-fifties, or the year dot, and started sending pensions to new-born kids, and switched off all the traffic lights, and switched on all the automatic Trident launchers...? remember?

In a seriously frantic attempt to avert Armageddon, corporates hired expert IT staff, and trained new support people, and software developers, and system administrators. I remember just how good it was to be a senior systems expert in those days: I would go out with these people after work, and they had money, and influence.

Then the date became 2001, and the world didn't end, and all those corporates said; "Oh. We seem to have rather more IT staff than we need. And they seem to be earning lots of money - more than some of our directors, dammit! Something Must Be Done...!"

The fad for "outsourcing" didn't start then, but the staff levels have declined, ever since. Outsourcing has increased. Time after time, we've reported IT staff reductions, the shifting of resources to Asia, the decision not to take on new IT people, or to increase the wages of existing staff. Freelance sysadmin people who, eight years ago were buying helicopters and hiring tax avoidance consultants, are now hanging back in the pub, in the hope that someone from Sales will stand the next round.

If every IT centre in this country suddenly has to hire two competent, experienced support staff to help puzzled users of the new Vista, the new IE7 and the new Office 2007 software, chances are that the chaos forecast for Y2K will finally unroll across the land.

The sort of expertise and experience it takes to give that sort of support isn't something you can teach in two weeks. You need people who are familiar with what's going on, understand the implications, and can pass on their experience to ordinary non-expert users.

Corporate IT managers will face a choice. Either, hire new experts (where from?) or, divert existing developers and managers to handle the workload of user support during the changeover.

For the sake of any urgent projects, let's hope that the changeover is as quick and simple as Microsoft expects, and that the pundits who are forecasting a reluctant and phobic workforce are all wrong. Oh, and that the tooth fairy doesn't run out of storage for her ivory... ®

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