(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Do it yourself Web page markup programs - the ultimate example being Apple's iWeb (http://www.apple.com/ilife/iweb) - have made it simple for people who seize up at the sound of computerese acronyms like HTML to produce beautiful Web pages. Big blow to professional Web site authors - who needs 'em anymore?
Digital cameras that can do photos and movies have put the power of professional presentation into the hands of the common folk. One click photo programs like the free Picasa (http://picasa.google.com) - and now the free 3D drawing program Sketchup - http://sketchup.google.com - are doing a number not only on photo developing establishments, which are dropping like flies - but are giving professional graphic artists a run for their money, as average users decide they can save money and do it themselves.
There's even software that lets average Joes like you and me easily set up their own radio station formats (http://www.riograndemud.com/clockwheel), a job that formerly required a great deal of professional skill. Did I say station format software? Forget that; you can set up your radio station "as easy as 1,2,3!" (http://www.shoutcast.com/download/serve.phtml).
Computers, those great levelers, are making technical work easier all the time. But I foresee a strong revival in computer system administration, an area that over the past few years has turned into another sinking ship, as computer system setup and troubleshooting has been made simpler thanks to a plethora of registry fixers and help forums.
And when will this great sys-admin revival take place? Next year - when Microsoft starts pushing its new Vista system upgrade on its massive customer base. If the final product is anything like the "almost ready for prime time" RC (Release Candidate) 1 copy of the program I've been playing with, folks who have a background in system management, hardware upgrades, and OS troubleshooting are going to be bringing home plenty of bacon! Yup, it's that involved.
Like tens of thousands of others, I downloaded my free copy of Vista RC1 (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsvista/getready/preview.mspx) - if only for the novelty of getting something for nothing from the normally "we don't give nuttin' away" MS people. (The link is still live, so give it a try, if you're so inclined). And it's something we're all going to have to get used to, and eventually live with, whether we like it or not - Win 98 and 2K are long gone, and even XP is going to die one day, very soon (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/lifecycle/default.mspx).
Note that this page refers to support (i.e. Security updates, etc.) - once Vista is "generally available," you're going to be getting it pre-installed on new computers, and it will be the only MS product available as an upgrade path. And, since the user agreement you've entered into with MS (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/home/eula.mspx) - without which agreement you cannot install the software you paid good money for - basically lets them call the shots on just about everything, they can stop supporting Windows XP anytime they durn well please.
As an aside, here's a project for the adventurous: Buy a Windows upgrade, take it home and open it, and then try to return it for a refund based on your dissatisfaction with stipulations in the user agreement such as " Microsoft and its suppliers provide the Software and support services (if any) AS IS AND WITH ALL FAULTS [their caps, not mine], and hereby disclaim all other warranties and conditions including, but not limited to ... fitness for a particular purpose, of reliability or availability, of accuracy or completeness of responses, of results, of workmanlike effort, of lack of viruses, and of lack of negligence" etc. etc. See what happens. (But that's a column for another day).
Anyway, Vista is the MS future, like it or not. And while I went into my Vista adventure enthusiastically, I have to warn you; installing it is a project that's going to take time, effort and dedication. Now, I would imagine that the final Vista release will be easier to handle or upgrade too. The RC1 release, for example, gives users options of setting up all four levels of the program (Home Basic, Home Premium, Business and Ultimate). It's likely that single upgrade/install options will be available for each distribution, eliminating one source of confusion.
All of the versions have a souped up built-in firewall, OS integrated search, parental controls (hours, programs, Web site banning, etc.) and Windows Photo Gallery, MS's answer to Apple's iPhoto (a video of the new features can be seen at http://www.hive.net/Member/Videos/cpp-chris-jones4.wmv. Note: it's 96 MB).
The biggest problems average users are going to have with Vista is not with what version to set up, it's with making sure that legacy (i.e. old) PCs are up to Vista's standards. Not that there's anything wrong with this. I certainly won't fault the OS for being more advance than my outdated hardware. But considering how many users have had trouble setting up "simpler" versions of Windows, and the upgrade requirements, I can see computer professionals having a field day working to bring home and business users into the Vista age - which, as mentioned, users are going to be required to enter, either voluntarily, or kicking and screaming.
On paper, the basic Vista requirements don't look too demanding. To properly install it, you need a "modern" PC with a Pentium or AMD processor running at 1 ghz or faster (Celeron users need not apply). And, while you can get away with 512 MB of memory to run Vista in its most basic form, 1 GB is necessary if you want to the highly-touted Aero graphics interface. An advanced video card, preferably one with TV output, is also highly recommended. You also need a DVD writer, unless you have a friend with one. The Vista download consists of an ISO image (2.5 GB) that you must burn onto a DVD - that's a sizable download, and it's likely to take a good day and night of downloading - the servers have slowed down considerably in recent days as testers rush to download their copies while they're still available.
Downloaded and burned, I selected a computer on which to install Vista.
But before any system files are written, you are prompted to download the Vista Upgrade Advisor, which will check out your installation candidate to see if it's got what it takes to run the latest and greatest. This is not a required step, but it is a very good idea because it turns out that not all hardware or software manufacturers are in on the Vista revolution yet.
Actually, if the Upgrade Advisor is any indication of what working with Vista is like, Windows users are in for a treat - it's actually a very well designed app. The program will take a poll of your hardware and software, and list for you any issues or problems you may have. And among my incompatible items was my anti-virus program, Avast (but I could always switch), my CD/DVD burning software (ditto) - and what turned out to be the laptop deal killer, my laptop's Synaptic Pointing Device Driver. Considering that this is what makes my laptop's touchpad go, I was quite concerned, and upgrading to the latest driver didn't eliminate the warning.
So there it was; the only Vista-ready candidate in my stable was out of the installation running. That's that, I thought - 20 hours of downloading and one DVD down the drain.
But then I got this bright idea - it came to me, actually, as I was sitting at my desk looking at my Apple Intel iMac. Remember Boot Camp, Apple's Windows installer for Intel Macs? It's a free download; I already had a copy of Windows, with a license. Why not give it a whirl?
Why not, indeed? So what happened? Tune in next time.