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Who Speaks for the Small Office?

Shortly after machines began shipping with Windows XP preinstalled last fall, business and IT consultants started to see a rising number of distress calls from small offices. Often, existing Windows networks didn't recognize the new machines. If and when the systems appeared on the network, Office XP customers found that the XP workstations couldn't participate in existing internal mail systems. Other customers wanted to know why the XP machines were repeatedly trying to access an unavailable Internet connection. In all, these offices found the new machines to be surprisingly small office/home office (SOHO)-unfriendly.

Consultants who specialize in the SOHO market segment have been disappointed, but not overly surprised, by these problems. More and more frequently, it seems, these consultants find themselves asking, "Who speaks for the small office when vendors are reviewing product designs and evaluating field tests?" Microsoft's marketing aces might talk about the importance of the SOHO market, but the products themselves display a disturbing denial of the segment's very existence. The result is a path to office automation that's particularly rocky for users in today's small office.

The first indication that things wouldn't be improving for SOHO users came with the release of Office XP in summer 2001. Small organizations discovered then that instead of upgrading Outlook's trouble-prone Net Folders, Microsoft had summarily dropped any provision for peer-to-peer sharing. To take advantage of Office XP's nifty new features, small offices would have to abandon locally based collaboration and information sharing. Having endured similar deficiencies with Office 97, many offices understandably decided that the sacrifice was just too great.

This decision is made easier by the difficulties that small organizations face when implementing Office these days. Licensing requirements that mean major implementation changes for some offices combined with incompatible application function and unclear advantages don't present an especially persuasive reason to upgrade. The Office resource kit, which once served as an implementation guide to the features and functions of the component products for all customer environments, is now a collection of deployment tools for one audience—very large enterprises. Under the circumstances, it's hardly surprising that many small offices make no more use of Office's even moderately advanced features than the average home user.

When Microsoft released Windows XP, it compounded the troubles of small-office administrators. Visitors to the public newsgroups for XP are familiar with the litany of small-group networking problems—invisible systems, browse master conflicts, and non-shareable disk drives—that seem impervious to the setup and troubleshooting wizards, with their high-color graphics and minimalist explanations. These difficulties, which you must confront whenever you introduce a new machine into an existing network, are the public manifestation of a troubling deficiency in the product plan for XP itself. The automated setup and maintenance wizards, designed for efficient and productive support of standalone users, are monumentally unproductive in a peer-to-peer environment—and few effective alternatives are available.

As motivated as they might be, part-time administrators in small offices with 10 to 15 machines won't find much prescriptive help to avoid the pitfalls associated with introducing one or more XP machines to an ongoing operation. The trusty Windows resource kit that their counterparts of 6 years ago depended upon to provide a foundation for implementing the OS doesn't exist anymore. As with the Office resource kit, installing the maximum number of seats has taken precedence over configuring the stations for optimal use. Supplementary technical information online suffers from the same deficiency as the built-in support—it's optimized for individual stations and ignores the needs of small-office administrators for external management processes that aren't dependent on a controlling server. Those responsible for technical support within small-office networks—customers with the least time to spend poring through various technical documents to find relevant information—are on their own. The result is that one XP machine, designed for efficient and automatic standalone maintenance, requires more—not less—work to maintain in a peer-to-peer network than other nodes.

Which brings us back to the fundamental question: "Who in the product-planning and delivery process speaks for the small office?" Is there a kindred soul in Windows support who realizes that a maintenance and update process that ignores mixed OS peer-to-peer networks is highly unproductive—perhaps even dysfunctional? Is there a chair at the Office planning table responsible for the requirements of the millions of small offices around the world? Who speaks for the small office?

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