From the June 2010 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

June 1, 2010

The Technology Coach: Time to Upgrade Your PC's OS?

In tough times, "leader-advisors" step up for clients, colleagues, and peers

It has been a long time coming, but Windows 7 is starting to erase the problems that Microsoft experienced with Windows Vista. For most advisors, installing Vista was never really a consideration. There was enough coverage in the technology world that demonstrated the challenges with Vista that provided advisors plenty of reasons to stick with Windows XP as their core operating system. Today, the early headlines for Windows 7 are much more positive. Microsoft recently reported that 10% of all PCs worldwide are now running Windows 7 and that business customers are starting to install the operating system.

Whether or not to upgrade to a new operating system is a question that advisors have not had to answer for quite some time. Windows XP was originally introduced way back in the Fall of 2001. From a technology perspective, that's a lifetime ago. There will be a day in the future--perhaps as early as some time in 2011--when Microsoft will end support for Windows XP. With that in mind, advisors should make plans to replace Windows XP with Windows 7 as their core operating system. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as telling your "tech guru" to upgrade your firm to Windows 7 over the weekend, and then see to it everything is normal on Monday. However, it shouldn't be too difficult with the right plan in place to facilitate the upgrade.

Features, Not Bugs, and Faster to Boot

It is important to understand some of benefits that your firm can expect when you install Windows 7. Initially, you will notice that Windows 7 runs much faster when it is installed on a newer computer (purchased within the last couple of years). The overall start-up, sleep, and resume process is much quicker than with Windows XP. Dave Rodman, co-founder of K&R Network Solutions in San Diego, confirms that "Windows 7 was designed to better utilize the processor and memory available in newer computers." K&R provides comprehensive IT support for over 150 companies, including a number of RIA firms. K&R is now running Windows 7 throughout its office and is beginning to see some demand from its clients for assistance with upgrading from Windows XP. Rodman also notes that "Windows 7 has been very stable." He noted that K&R tried installing Vista a while ago but quickly switched back to Windows XP.

There are several exciting new features in Windows 7 that advisors will find useful, including the Live Taskbars and the Snap features. Live Taskbars allows you to quickly scan the programs currently open on your computer as well as the individual files associated with each program. Snap is a tool that offers the ability to quickly arrange two windows for better viewing, especially for comparison purposes between both windows. I know many advisors currently use two monitors to do the same job today on Windows XP, but now everyone will be able to run comparisons using one monitor.

Before You Leap

A critical step prior to installing Windows 7 is to take inventory of the existing software programs used by your firm. First, you want to ensure that every software program that your firm uses is Windows 7 Certified. What this means is that the software company has tested its product with the Windows 7 operating system, and more important, that it is ready to provide support for their clients. Be sure to ask the software companies that you work with how many clients they have running Windows 7. Find out from the software maker what the overall experience has been, especially with system performance for users running Windows 7. The actual number of users a software company has running their product with Windows 7 is also a good indication of how well it is operating in real-life business scenarios. For software programs that are unlikely ever to be certified for Windows 7, there is still hope. The Professional and Ultimate versions of Windows 7 include the ability to run in Windows XP mode, which is a lifesaver if you have one or two legacy programs that your business depends on.

The most important consideration before converting to Windows 7 is comparing the hardware requirements of this new operating system versus your company's hardware needs. If you have existing computers that are more than two years old, it will likely be less expensive and time consuming to simply purchase new computers than upgrading the older computers. Purchasing a new computer with Windows 7 already installed is definitely the easiest route compared with installing the operating system on an existing computer. Upgrading existing computers introduces more chances for hardware incompatibilities and errors. In addition, you will need to have a backup solution to ensure you don't lose any data. The amount of memory on your computers is also very important. For example, at least 2 GB of RAM is required to run Windows XP Mode on Windows 7. However, I suspect most advisors will want to have at least 4 GB of RAM, considering the number of programs advisors tend to have running at the same time.

Ultimately, addressing your hardware needs may come down to timing the purchase of new computers. Rick Brooks, VP of Investment Management for the southern California-based advisory firm Blankenship & Foster, says, "it is a budget issue more than anything else." Brooks says his firm will move forward with Windows 7 when it needs to upgrade or replace computers.

If you do decide to purchase new computers, this is also a good time to evaluate whether you should purchase new desktop or laptop computers. For years, desktop computers were the dominate purchase for advisors, but now, with faster processors and smaller hard drives, laptops are becoming more common as the primary business platform. The declining cost of laptops has also influenced this trend.

Devise Your Rollout Strategy

Considering how you will introduce this new operating system is the next critical area to consider before moving your office to Windows 7. It has been said many times that you can have a great strategy, but the implementation of that strategy is what really determines its success. As a starting point, plan on installing Windows 7 on just one or two computers. Also, select a computer that is used by an employee who is comfortable with testing new technology solutions. You don't need a technology expert, but you want that person to notice even the smallest issue with running a program in Windows 7. Run your important programs and look for any potential errors, any functions that don't work, and evaluate the overall performance and speed of the machine with Windows 7. Don't take anything for granted--in some cases problems won't appear until you have multiple programs open. So try to document a test plan to make sure that nothing is overlooked. If you get error messages or notice problems, contact the program vendor to see if an update is available. Rolling out Windows 7 to your staff will require some work and training, so factor in how busy your firm is, and remember that Windows 7 may not be immediately intuitive to everyone on your staff.

Overall, the reports of the initial experience with Windows 7 is very satisfying, and it promises to make your computer time more productive. With the right installation plan in place, you can minimize the number of surprises with Windows 7 and ideally take advantage of new functionality and performance enhancements. The unfortunate part of the process may be the expense of purchasing new computers or upgrading existing computers. But if you find it is time to purchase a new computer, the choice of the operating system is now easy. Windows XP, which has been used by the majority of advisors for years, finally has a worthy successor, and advisors finally have solid reasons to upgrade.


Dan Skiles is the executive VP of Shareholders Service Group in San Diego. He can be reached at dskiles@ssginstitutional.com.
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