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What to do when your PC expires

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12th Aug 2010
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In response to an Any Answers question on AccountingWEB, Simon Hurst offers some advice on what to do when your Windows PC expires.

A recent Any Answers question raised the issue of what to do when a hardware failure makes it necessary to replace one computer in a small network. Given that the obvious route is to buy a new computer with the latest operating system and version of Office installed, this leaves you with several options:

  • Accept the fact that one of several computers will be using a different operating system and version of Office
  • Downgrade the operating system and/or Office version to maintain consistency
  • Use this as a prompt to initiate a general operating system and application update
  •  Conduct a wholesale review of the software infrastructure and consider abandoning Windows and Office altogether
  • Conduct a wholesale review of the whole system and consider moving from an internal network running desktop software to a cloud solution.

Option 1: tarantula in the bananas
Much as Microsoft would like to think that their extensive product R&D and marketing cause users to make a conscious decision to move to the latest version of Windows or Office, for many organisations the process is far less deliberate. Often, a new version will sneak into workplace hidden within the bundle of software provided with a new PC. In a business environment the operating system might not make too much of a difference to a user. As long as they can launch applications and work with open applications and the computer is fast, stable and secure, then the changes between say Windows XP and Windows 7 are likely to seem fairly cosmetic and superficial.

The situation with Office is less straightforward. Differences between all the versions of Office from Office 97 to Office 2003 are likely to be minor irritations at most for Word and Excel, with Outlook undergoing rather more radical change and Access changes in file formats.

The situation changed dramatically with Office 2007. As well as the usual upgrades to existing features and the introduction of some new functionality, Office 2007 replaced the traditional menus and toolbars with the graphical Ribbon. Someone having their PC replaced and firing up Excel 2007 the next morning is going to notice the difference pretty quickly, particularly when they can't find any of the File options.

Allowing older versions of Office to co-exist with Office 2007 or 2010 is almost inevitably going to cause some confusion, particularly if users move from one computer to another. As well as the interface issue, there is also the question of file formats. The native 2007/2010 file format is incompatible with that used by previous versions of Office. However, with a bit of planning, this might not be as much of a problem as it sounds. The Office 2007/2010 applications can be set up to use the old file format as the default for saving new documents, and/or the free Microsoft Office compatibility pack can be installed on the existing machines to allow their versions of Office to open the new format documents.

Option 2 - Lowest common denominator
One way of avoiding mixed versions of operating systems and office applications is to remove the new versions on the new machine, or buy a computer with no pre-installed software, and then install the versions you want to use. As some of the answers to the original question make clear, this is not as straightforward as it might sound. Apart from the time taken to install or delete and install, the licensing issues need to be considered. If you are used to acquiring your operating systems and office applications as OEM versions provided with a new computer, then you can't just install the packages you acquired with the old computer on another computer. Most OEM licenses limit the use of the software to the computer that it came on. When the computer dies, your right to use the software dies with it. If this is the case you will need to buy new software licences for the new computer. Even this is less than simple – you may well find it difficult to discover legitimate old versions of products, although as the answers again cover, some licences do entitle you to use previous versions.

Licensing concerns aside, sticking with old versions is not a perfect solution. There may still be issues with other organisations or, if you are in practice, clients, sending you documents from more recent versions of Office. Although the compatibility pack may allow you to open these documents, you will not have complete access to the new features available in the latest version. Compatibility with other software products may also be an issue. Your accounting or document management software might require you to use the latest version of Office.

Option 3 - Grasp the nettle
Of course, the same arguments regarding the maintenance of compatibility with other organisations and software products apply just as much if you do go ahead and upgrade to the latest version. In addition, if you upgrade your operating system then you will need to make sure that all the software you use will still work with Windows 7. Virtualisation has made this less of an issue – you can create a ‘virtual’ PC running an old operating system that can be run almost seamlessly to allow you access to applications that have problems with the latest operating system. In fact, Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate versions have a Windows XP mode based on Windows Virtual PC.

Following many issues with the performance of Windows Vista on older hardware (and even relatively new hardware!), Windows 7 was designed to offer decent performance even on machines that are a few years behind the latest specifications. But if your computers are getting on a bit then it’s certainly worth checking them against the operating system requirements although just meeting the requirements to run doesn’t guarantee sparkling performance. Usually the most cost effective upgrade is to make sure the PC has plenty of RAM.

As well as defensive reasons for going for the latest version, a new Office version is a useful prompt to consider whether you are getting as much out of the software as you could. Would the new features could make it worth upgrading irrespective of all the other issues?

There is little substitute for gaining a reasonable overview of what the latest version has to offer in order to make this decision. As was clearly evident when I proclaimed my enthusiasm for some of Excel 2010’s new features, it’s only worth upgrading if you can envisage a practical and relevant use for the latest capabilities. For some, graphical features such as sparklines and the conditional formatting improvements might offer the opportunity to add enough value to what they do that the acquisition and implementation costs of a new version become insignificant. For organisations that have no use for the latest functions, such costs are just another unwelcome overhead.

Option 4 - Open to change
Whether you like the Ribbon or hate it, changing the Office user interface was a brave decision. As has been pointed out, the main competing office suites retain an interface that looks more like Office 2003 and before than Office 2007 does. If the reason you’ve stuck with Microsoft Office is because of familiarity and avoiding disruption and retraining, then Office 2007 and 2010 give you the perfect opportunity to reconsider. If users are going to have to get used to a new interface anyway, why stick with Microsoft? Apart from anything else, many of the alternatives, whether desktop or cloud-based are free – getting the latest version of Microsoft Office is certainly not. However, although the alternatives to Microsoft Office are increasingly capable of matching it for basic features and often in terms of file compatibility, many users of more advanced features will find there are significant gaps in the alternative offerings.

If you are considering an open source office suite then why not an open source operating system such as one of the Linux distributions? The October edition of PC Pro magazine (on the shelves in August!) included an article comparing Windows 7 to Ubuntu 10.04. The article concluded that there was only a narrow gap between the two operating systems with Windows getting 41/50 against Ubuntu’s 38/50. Lack of Linux support for specialist financial and accounting applications may be an issue, but there is WINE, the Windows emulator. PC Pro reported running all the Microsoft Office 2010 applications in this way ‘without quibble’.

Option 5 - Dump the desktop
One of the main conclusions of the PC Pro article was that if you just used the PC to access applications via a web browser then there would seem little point in suffering the costs and enhanced hardware requirements of Windows. Taking this a bit further, if you could find browser-based applications to cover all your requirements, then it might be possible to abandon internal networks and desktop based applications altogether and migrate to the cloud.

Further reading

About the author
Simon Hurst is a former chairman of the ICAEW IT Faculty and runs The Knowledge Base, a consultancy dedicated to helping accountants make effective use of technology. He is a regular contributor to AccountingWEB's ExcelZone and the author of '100 Time-saving Tips for Microsoft Office'. For more information, visit The Knowledge Base website.

Replies (15)

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Simon Hurst
By Simon Hurst
12th Aug 2010 15:48

Buy a Mac

Before anybody else points it out, I should of course have included an option 6 - buy a Mac...

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By carnmores
12th Aug 2010 22:21

Simon

how is that going to help!

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By Jonathan White
12th Aug 2010 23:14

Simple
because it and the software that runs on it is easier to use and more stable for starters.

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By carnmores
13th Aug 2010 13:15

missed the point entirely

what you say may be so - but if its on a nwetwork this is an almost entirely uinworkable solution - and thats before you get into legacy matters

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By cverrier
13th Aug 2010 13:41

and...

Good luck trying to find an accounts-prep or tax product to work on the Mac when you do get it.

Plus, from reports I've read, Windows 7 is proving to be MORE stable than OSX  (which does crash now and then, despite what Apple would have you believe - just Google for 'spinning beach ball of death'!)

Actually, Windows 7's dramatically improved stability is possibly a good enough reason to go for the 'grasp the nettle' option and upgrade everything!.

I recommend Windows 7 without reservation. It just works.     Get some decent kit, make sure you've got 4Gb of RAM to keep everything nice and fast, and you'll be SO much better off than struggling along with XP or Vista.

It needn't be expensive: I just did a quick check on the Dell website - a Vostro 230 ST with 4Gb RAM, 19" screen and Windows 7 Professional will set you back £469 plus VAT.

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By carnmores
13th Aug 2010 14:04

absolutely CV

well put - it was a load of hokum

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By Sam Brown
13th Aug 2010 14:40

linux surely...
...has to be considered as a viable option for small business. It's free for goodness sake and is just as usable as the windows environment and openoffice apps work with .doc and .xls formats etc. You could simply wipe your hard drives clean and enjoy a fresh install of ubuntu or fedora, say, with all the necessary apps pre-installed. There's more than sufficient support online at various linux websites.

Only drawback is whether apps like Sage 50 would work via WINE. If not, you could still consider using a virtual machine, which is still free, would work just fine (providing hardware is up to the task).

Is there any reason why a small business would not want to move to a FREE and STABLE linux based operating system???!!!

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By Jonathan White
13th Aug 2010 14:53

My mistake

... thought we had finally entered the post "Sage on Windows is my (one and only) recommendation" world! MS DOS anyone?  ; )

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By Jonathan White
13th Aug 2010 14:56

Boot Camp

If you need to run Windows only apps why not just use Boot Camp; the MacBook Air I bought last year is the best Windows machine I've ever had.

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By carnmores
13th Aug 2010 15:05

johnathan

you do not have a monopoly on wisdom

does your solution work over a network - which is exactly the point i was making 

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By Jonathan White
13th Aug 2010 15:48

It's late on a Friday afternoon

have I understood this correctly- are you asking me if you can run Macs on a Network?

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By carnmores
13th Aug 2010 18:56

ALMOST !

can you run macs on a windows network with only other  windows machines that would would be able to use windows programs from the server

and yes i agree that macs are great but that is not is dispute i would have thought

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By mikewhit
16th Aug 2010 12:28

Read the small print ...

but there is WINE, the Windows emulator - well, not quite, since "WINE" stands for "WINE Is Not an Emulator" ...

Also, any input on Open Office (for both Windows and Linux) ?

I have used some parts of this, but since it is not subject to the same degree of "management" as Office, I have heard that it does suffer from one or two usability issues, such as user interface consistency.

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By Jonathan White
16th Aug 2010 20:06

PC to Mac

You're not going to be able to use a Mac to directly open Windows apps if that's what you mean; Mac has a different OS which I guess is the point. However, you can use a Windows PC as a server for Mac files (and vice versa). The point about legacy files and the unavailability of certain equivalent Windows software for the Mac is a valid one and there a couple of things to help PC to Mac switchers. Firstly, Office for Mac allows two way exchange of its files between Mac and Windows. Also, there are a couple of solutions when you use a Mac but have to use PC apps. Firstly, there's a utility included in the Mac OS called Boot Camp which lets you start your Mac as PC- you will need to buy a copy of a Windows OS. Alternatively, there is emulation software that let's you run Windows within the Mac OS- it gives you a window that is your PC on the Mac desktop so you can easily switch between the two environments. Parallels is an example- £65 and you'll need a copy of a Windows OS.

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By carnmores
16th Aug 2010 20:18

thanks JW

i am considerably better informed..

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