Microsoft Anti-Virus arrives

Yesterday, Microsoft released their own Anti-Virus product – ‘Microsoft Security Essentials’.

MSE is a no-frills anti-virus program, that works on Windows XP, Vista and Win7 – and it’s free (the only requirement is that you are running a ‘genuine’ copy of Windows). You can download it from….

www.microsoft.com/security_essentials

Although it’s still quite new – tests seem to indicate it is at least as good at detecting and clearing viruses as the other commercial products on the market, and particular praise has been made of the unobtrusive way it goes about its business. It doesn’t slow your PC down, and it doesn’t bombard you with pop-ups telling you how clever it is. There are no adverts, no upgrade offers, just a small icon in the system tray.

The software updates itself daily via ‘Microsoft Update’, and again does so entirely automatically and invisibly. It’s got a very simple look & feel (see picture above) with a minimal number of configuration settings.

Microsoft do stress that you shouldn’t have more than ONE of any type of security software on a PC, as they interfere with each other (that’s not just true of Microsoft’s product – it’s good practice to avoid this anyway, as I mentioned in an earlier post).

MSE incorporates an enhanced version of the Windows Defender anti-spyware product – so if you have that installed, the MSE installer will automatically disable that program and take over all spyware protection duties.

Although it may seem that Microsoft are newbies in this field, they have in fact been developing and supplying enterprise security products for some time – Forefront Server being their main network firewall/security product. MSE uses the same underlying technology and virus database as Forefront Server. Microsoft have also been selling a paid-for security system called ‘OneCare’ (an unfortunate name if spoken with certain accents) which they have now closed down in favor of MSE.

    What Won’t it do?

It is a basic anti-virus and anti-spyware product for a single PC – it doesn’t have the central administration tools that are beloved of IT managers in larger organisations. It also isn’t a firewall – you still need one of those.

It doesn’t have web browser security functions – some products add special toolbars into your Web Browser to warn you about dodgy sites.

    Why are Microsoft doing this?

There are an awful lot of PC’s out there with incomplete anti-virus coverage – and that hits everyone – just like incomplete vaccination coverage can cause problems in a population. I’m also sure that Microsoft are not unaware of the commercial benefits if Windows reputation for being virus-prone diminishes as a result.

– Anti-virus Software is often provided on new PCs, but it is usually a trial version that expires after a few months and requires activation (and a credit card number) to keep going after the initial trial. Lots of people never quite get around to sorting that out.

– Many people are dissuaded from installing anti-virus software because of bad experiences with software hitting PC performance – and there were some shocking examples around.

– Most software now requires annual renewal (at a cost) and it’s an easy cost to postpone in difficult times – particularly if a few months go by without updates and no problems crop up.

    Are there other free alternatives?

Yes.

The most well-known is AVG (http://free.avg.com), which has a solid reputation. The free version, however, is not licenced for use in business environments, and it does do quite a lot of advertising within the software – trying to pursuade you to upgrade to the ‘Professional’ version. I have this software on my home PC’s.

I have also used Avira (www.free-av.com) which again works well. This one, however, became rather too annoying with its pop-up advertising.

    Should you use it?

It is very important that your PCs are protected – if you are currently not keeping your office machines updated because of cost or performance reasons, then this could be the answer. A properly updated no-frills option is better than an out of date version of one of the fancier products.

If you currently have one of the commercial products (Norton, McAfee, etc), then you should decide if the more advanced features of these products (such as centralised administration/reporting and updates) in fact mean that they remain the best option for you.

Its also worth reiterating – keep your PCs updated with the latest patches – many virusses rely on exploiting flaws in Windows that have long since been fixed by Microsoft, but which many people haven’t installed. Prevention is better than cure.

    What are YOU doing, Charles?

I had been using Norton Anti-Virus 2009 on my work machines (Norton went through a bad patch where their products were bloated and slow, but the 2009 version was much better). It didn’t support Windows 7, however, and I was considering which product to go with on my re-built Windows7 64-bit laptop – I was going with Norton 2010, but free is free, so I have now installed MSE, and it’s working very well.

Is technology making my accountant redundant?

I’m a (very) small business – I set myself up as a Ltd Company when I went freelance about 18 months ago, and one of the first things I did was to get myself an accountant.

At about the same time, I also set myself up with an SaaS provider (FreeAgent Central) who offer a bookkeeping product specifically aimed at freelancers and contractors.

What I’ve been noticing, however, is that I keep finding myself politely declining offers to do this, that, and the other from my accountant – because my software is already doing it…

– Calculating and generating payroll schedules
– Generating VAT Return figures (including FRS adjustments)
– Quarterly PAYE returns
– Generating Dividend Vouchers
– Calculating Corporation Tax liability
– Reminding me about payment deadlines for all of the above

I know that FreeAgent isn’t the only product around that does this sort of stuff now. Any old software can handle the record-keeping and reporting – but the next step is doing something useful with the raw information to actually help the business owner focus on what matters. Xero , for example, seems to be going from strength to strength – making real inroads into MYOB’s Sage-like levels of market-share in New Zealand for precisely this reason.

I’m well below the audit threshold, and only need to file the most abbreviated of abbreviated accounts. It’s only a matter of time before SaaS products like FreeAgent will offer to generate and electronically submit those for me too.

From my accountants perspective – I’m pretty low maintenance. I think I’ve emailed a procedural question now and then, but that about it. I provided them with a login to my books, so they could get whatever they needed from the live system. I don’t think I’m ever going to trouble an audit dept, and I’ll probably end up using a copy of TaxCalc to do my personal return as it’s less work than filling out my accountants’ personal tax questionnaire (paper based). The only real chance of some meaty work is if I get slapped with an IR35 investigation or similar.

So – do I even need an accountant? Do accountants need clients like me?

My point is this: An awful lot of the (chargeable) jobs that accountants have taken for granted are becoming commodities that software is perfectly capable of doing, and is increasingly capable of delivering direct to clients. What are firms going to do to replace that work?

Microsoft Live Mesh

For the past few months, I’ve been using Microsoft’s Live Mesh system. It’s still in Beta, but is so genuinely useful that I’d find it hard to function without it.

Put simply – Mesh is a tool for synchronising data across multiple devices – using the Internet. Once registered, you get a ‘Mesh Desktop’ (which looks like a simple Windows Desktop – in your browser). Where it gets good is that you can now link folders on your laptop, home PC, or Windows phone to your mesh, and create synchronisation rules between them. If I save a Word document to a Mesh-enabled folder on my laptop – it gets automatically synchronised to the matching folder on my cloud-based Mesh desktop. If I’m not online, the synchronisation will be deferred until I am, and happens automatically in the background.

If I have a second PC – the synchronisation of that Word Document can go a stage further and deliver the document to a folder on that PC as well. Also automatically and without prompting. It doesn’t matter if both PC’s aren’t powered on or connected – the sync just waits until they are and then brings the machine up to date.

In practice, then… I Mesh-enable the key data folders on my main office PC (just a right-click option and the folder changes from yellow to blue to tell me its’ new status). I just work as usual with the folder– cutting, pasting, saving , deleting. Meanwhile – in the background, Mesh is synchronising all those changes up to the cloud, and lining up a queue of changes to deliver to my other machines when it can.

Next day, I have a client meeting in London and I know I won’t be needing any serious computer power, so I take my little MSI Wind (Windows 7 plus Mesh!) instead of a ‘proper’ laptop. I can open up the Netbook, double-click into my data folders – and there are the documents I was working on yesterday, In practice, I’ve never yet opened up that Netbook to find a file and been let down.

In short….

– SYNCRONISE DATA BETWEEN MULTIPLE PCs AUTOMATICALLY
– USE THE INTERNET AS THE CONNECTION
– THE PCs DON’T ALL HAVE TO BE ON AT THE SAME TIME.

Almost as a sideline – Live Mesh also uses that secure data-connection between your PCs to provide remote-desktop access between them (but only within the secure little community of trusted machines that you have joined to your Mesh). I don’t need GoToMyPC or the other paid services, and it’s pretty firewall-friendly.

By the way – did I mention that you can run Mesh on OS X? Yep – there’s a Mac version.

This is one of those products that “Just works” – I can’t help but view Live Mesh as an example of the new post-Gates Microsoft – delivering really well rounded products that do something technically clever but looking terribly simple (as opposed to doing something technically clever and making sure your face is rubbed in that cleverness and complexity – I’m looking at you, SharePoint).

Bill Gates’ role as Chief Software Architect has been taken over by Ray Ozzie – (creator of Lotus Notes and Microsoft Groove). I’m sure it’s simplistic to say that Mesh and the like is all down to Ray Ozzie , but there does seem to be a real change to they way Microsoft is doing things, and that has coincided with his arrival. Microsoft is picking up on the change of style, and it’s showing.

Just as a final recommendation – I read first about Mesh via the blog of Microsoft’s Steve Clayton, by the way – a blog worth adding to your list. He also led me to the art of Hugh McLeod, an example of which I now use on the back of my business cards.

Windows 7 AND 64-bit!

As a Microsoft Partner, I got advance copies of Windows 7 (the full final version) for my own use.

Needless to say, and based on my own overwhelmingly positive experiences with the pre-release copies, I re-formatted my main work laptop and installed it. I also decided that now was the time to move into the brave new world of 64-bit.

The 64-bit version of Windows does offer some tantilising benefits. It can run faster (when software is written to take advantage of it) and it can also support MUCH more memory (RAM), which produces benefits when running lots of applications at once, or using Virtual Machines – something I do more and more.

The other big advantage of 64-bit Windows is that there is a somewhat higher technical threshold for hardware developers, so it raises the prospect of a future where dodgy hardware drivers cannot cause crashes and Windows will achieve the same sort of bulletproof serenity as an Apple.

A full-scale reformat and re-install can also be a good opportunity to ‘spring clean’ – (You cannot upgrade from 32-bit to 64-bit, you HAVE to do a clean install). So I made sure that I only installed the applications I really wanted, and that they were all the latest versions. I reorganised my data folders, and even set my screen options to produce an entirely clean desktop without even the Recycle Bin to mar the view. (Have a look at the screenshot at the top of the page – Lovely! – the wallpaper is one supplied with Windows 7)

All of my software has installed itself and worked without a murmer – Properly written 32-bit applications run perfectly happily in a 64-bit world (and even Microsoft hasn’t produced a 64-bit version of Office yet – that will be coming with Office 2010).

then I hit a snag….

I have a Kodak i40 scanner – A very nice bit of kit, that does all my office scanning, and which I also use now and then in presentations and training on various Document Management products.

It transpires that Kodak have not written a 64-bit driver for it, and they probably won’t, and that’s that. The scanner will NOT play with my shiny new laptop. The very thing I’d sought (a computer clear of old and outdated software and drivers) had come back to bite me in the backside. It looks as if I’ll be moving up to the new Kodak i210 scanner and the old one will be heading to eBay. I could reformat and revert to 32-bit Windows 7, of course, but that somehow feels like defeat….

What to take from this?

– 64-bit IS coming – and it will produce a faster, more reliable PC on your desk. Windows 7 could be the real turning point when 64-bit becomes ‘mainstream’. Windows 8 (which should be out around the time of the London Olympics) will almost certainly be 64-bit only.

– Most 32-bit software should just work (although make sure your supplier supports it).

– Check that your hardware is supported – Manufacturers HAVE to completely re-write for 64-bit, and they won’t always bother for older kit.

UPDATE

It also transpires that Flash Player isn’t supported yet on 64-bit Web Browsers…. so all the pretty graphs on the homepage of my bookkeeping software stopped working….

 

Make best use of what you have

Times are tough – and IT budgets are under pressure. Before spending money on new kit – it’s worth making sure you are getting the best out of your current systems, and there are lots of (free) ways that your current systems can be optimised.

Here are a few…

If you have the time (2-3 hours) and the confidence – one of the best ways to revive a struggling PC is to wipe it and re-install Windows. An old machine will have had endless installs and re-installs over its life – all of which leaves all sorts of old files, registry entries, etc on the hard disk. No amount of manual ‘spring cleaning’ ever gets rid of it all. A clean rebuild can do wonders for performance and reliability.

BUT

  • Make sure you’ve backed up any and all data files, shortcuts, favourites, etc (in an office environment, of course, all important data should be on the servers NOT on desktop PCs – so there shouldn’t be much data to back-up, right?) 😉
  • Make sure you have all the right software CD’s and licence keys for the re-install.

Try to standardise the PC ‘builds’ across the office – lots of different PCs with different software versions makes support more difficult (and therefore more expensive). If you can’t justify Office 2007 for everyone – then stick to Office 2003 for everyone – not a mixture. But, make sure you have rolled out the latest Office service pack (Service Pack 3 in the case of Office 2003) and installed the 2007 Compatibility module that lets you read Office 2007 files.

Office 2003 SP3
http://www.microsoft.com/Downloads/details.aspx?familyid=E25B7049-3E13-4…

Office 2003 compatibility pack for 2007 files
http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=941b3470-3ae9-4…

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Uninstall Browser add-ons like Yahoo toolbar – you don’t need them and they can slow up your PC.

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If you have Windows XP – Upgrade to Service Pack 3. It installs EVERY security and reliability patch Microsoft have released to date – in one handy package. It has also delivered performance benefits in some cases.

XP Service Pack 3
http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=5B33B5A8-5E76-4…

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Upgrade to Internet Explorer 7 (at least) – IE7 is significantly faster and more secure than IE6, and it’s been around long enough for any major issues to be addressed. Microsoft are about to terminate support for IE6 as well – another reason to move on. If you’re up for it – go to IE8, which is Microsoft’s best browser yet – no question.

http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?displaylang=en&FamilyID=…

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Upgrade to Acrobat Reader 9 – It’s the best version of reader so far – after many years where successive versions of Reader got ever slower and more bloated – Adobe have raised their game. Reader 9 loads faster, is more secure, and is easier to use.

http://www.adobe.com/products/reader/

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Rationalise your security approach – Each PC should have..

  1. Anti-Virus
  2. Anti Spyware
  3. Firewall

But not more than one of each! Some security products do all three, but if you have one of these, then clear out any other ones that may have accumulated over the years (Microsoft Defender, AdAware, etc.). Note that updating from IE6 will also help protect your PCs from the dodgier corners of the Internet.

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Update your hardware drivers – Poorly written drivers are the single biggest reason for PC crashes (which leads to loss of work and time). Manufacturers DO review and fix problems in their drivers, and it’s worth checking the ‘support’ or ‘downloads’ sections of their web-sites for these. Also, Use the ‘Windows Update’ system to check for driver updates from Microsoft.

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Once you’ve got past this – you do have to think about spending a bit of money….

The single best hardware upgrade you can do to improve system performance is more memory (RAM) – 1Gb should be a minumum with XP (2Gb with Vista and Win7) – and that shouldn’t be expensive. BUT if you intend to replace PC’s within the next 6 months – don’t bother, you won’t get the payback. All servers should have as much as possible (4Gb on 32-bit Windows). For new PC’s I’d want 4Gb RAM straight away.