Microsoft Launches Vista, Office 2007, Exchange 2007 to Businesses ... Sort of

Last week, in a surprisingly inauspicious event at NASDAQ in New York City, Microsoft finally launched its long-awaited Windows Vista OS, at least in versions suitable for volume-license customers. The software maker also shipped volume-license versions of Microsoft Office 2007 and pledged to ship the final version of Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 in the coming weeks. So what's an over-stressed business to do?

Microsoft says the analysts are wrong about lagging business interest in these products. According to the company, business interest in Vista, Office 2007, and Exchange 2007 is much, much higher than expected, and the company is conservatively projecting that more than 200 million customers will be running one or more of those products by the end of 2007. My guess is that the number will actually be quite a bit higher than that. And I'm relying on you to make it happen.

OK, I'm just kidding about that last bit, but Vista, Office 2007, and Exchange 2007 are all extremely important updates that offer tremendous advantages over previous versions. Each, too, arrives with learning curves and other requirements that could, at least temporarily, raise the cost of migrating. Ultimately, I feel that doing so, in each case, will be well worth it.

Although Vista lacks a single "killer" feature, it's full of useful and productivity-enhancing functionality. The new integrated Windows Search feature is both instant and accurate, and the ability to save searches as virtual folders, though a bit hidden in the UI, should prove extremely useful to power users. Vista's security enhancements appear to be top-notch, although of course a year in the real world should settle that claim once and for all. But I'll mention one Vista security enhancement that all enterprises should examine: Windows BitLocker Drive Encryption allows you to encrypt the entire contents of a PC's system drive, ensuring that the data stored within is safe from prying eyes should the machine be stolen. For companies that have suffered data loss from stolen or lost notebooks, this feature alone should drive adoption.

Vista's new Windows Explorer shell is far more productive than previous versions, with useful document previews and rich live icons that show off the contents of files without requiring you to open them first, perfect when you're searching for a certain PowerPoint presentation or other document in which a visual preview will provide a nice memory trigger. Vista also offers a tremendous number of performance and reliability enhancements that should keep PCs up and running--and support calls down--longer than is possible with Windows XP. Are there problems with Vista? Of course. As always, Microsoft has moved commonly used features around, which will take a bit of getting used to. But the overall system is very similar to XP, and my guess is that most users will be able to get up to speed quickly.

On the Office 2007 front, Microsoft is offering a bewildering number of product editions, each with a unique set of bundled applications and features. But the biggest advance in this version is of course the new RibbonX UI, as it's now called, which replaces the old menu-and-toolbar approach. The RibbonX is hugely successful and will allow both experienced and neophyte Office users to discover functionality they never knew existed in Office. And thanks to updated graphical effects, your documents, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint slides will look better than ever.

There are two downsides to Office 2007. First, the new UI will absolutely require a bit of training, though I believe the cost of that will be less than many predict and ultimately worth the effort. Second, not all Office 2007 applications adopt the new UI: Only Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and various sub-windows in Outlook use RibbonX. I hope Microsoft will update the rest of Office in the next version. But this is interesting: Microsoft is licensing the innovative and unique RibbonX UI to any third party for free. That means we'll be seeing a lot more ribbon-based applications in the coming year.

Although Vista and Office are currently available to volume-license customers, many Microsoft customers will have to wait for the wider availability of Vista to retailers and PC makers. This won't happen until January 30, 2007, so last week's launch won't affect a wide range of users.

Finally, Exchange 2007 offers tremendous performance and functional improvements and a new roles-based architecture that makes the server more appropriate for various messaging-related tasks in any size environment. One of Exchange 2007's best features includes the new Outlook Voice Access (OVA) feature, which lets you literally call Exchange, speak commands (like "I'm running late for my meeting") to it, and listen to it recite email messages, tasks, and scheduled items. This isn't just a great demo, it's a tremendous time saver for anyone that's ever tried to keep up while on the go. Exchange 2007 also includes a version of the amazing new Windows PowerShell for scripting and automation, and my guess is that administrators will immediately grasp the importance and usefulness of this amazing tool.

On the downside, Exchange 2007 requires x64-based hardware, which isn't too uncommon these days, as well as an x64 version of Windows Server 2003, which is quite a bit more unusual. Exchange 2007 is Microsoft's first major foray into the 64-bit world, in the sense that it's the first major product from the company to actually require x64 hardware and an x64 version of Windows. However, naysayers aside, the x64 platform should provide Exchange with the headroom it needs to perform well in any sized environment, and since most companies will need to purchase new servers for this system anyway, the OS and hardware requirements are largely moot. Clearly, 64-bit is the future, and with Exchange, the future is now.

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