Software Considerations When Buying Agency Computers

If youve read our first two articles in this series (see NU, Aug. 11 and Sept. 15) and done some serious thinking, youre just about ready to order your new computers, but there are a few additional considerations that can be important.

Youve already done your agency technology inventory and some thinking about CPU speed, RAM and your hard drive needs, but some other basics bear mentioning.

If youre buying personal computers, and not just workstations, you need to decide between two platforms: Windows or Macintosh.

While Macintosh computers comprise a relatively small share of the market, they do have their ardent proponents, especially in the graphic arts and education fields. A quick look around at the software available for Macs vs. Windows PCs, however, will tell you that most of the business world has bought into Microsoft Windows lock, stock and barrel. A look at the offerings of the major agency management software vendors will tell you the same thing. So, for purposes of this article, well assume youre choosing a Windows machine.

Now theres the matter of the operating system version. Just about any computer you buy today will come equipped with Windows XP, although you may still find a few Windows 2000 machines floating around. Both systems are workable with most modern software, but be aware that Windows 2000 is the older version and may therefore not be supported by Microsoft for as long as XP. (Windows 95, for example, was a dominant operating system for more than three years, but it is no longer supported by Microsoft.)

Its also important to be aware that software that works with older Windows versions may not be supported by XP. When I migrated from my Windows 98 home PC to a Windows XP machine last year, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that some of my most useful software programs would not function in the XP environment.

The solution is to upgrade your software, if needed, along with your operating system. Make sure you find out what programs will work in XP and include the software upgrades in your cost estimates for new systems.

Within Windows XP youll have a choice of purchasing XP Home Edition or XP Professional Edition for about $100 more. On the surface, the two appear to function much the same, but Windows XP Professional provides more in the way of business functions and security than XP Home Edition.

Microsoft, on its Web site, recommends that potential purchasers note the following differences in the two editions:

Remote Desktop, found only in XP Professional, lets you set up your PC for connection from any other Windows-based computer, which might be useful for accessing your computer from virtually anywhere.

Windows XP Professional lends itself better to connection to a large network.

Windows XP Professional has an Encrypting File System for increased data security, a feature not found in XP Home. It also allows you to restrict access to selected files and applications.

According to Microsoft, Windows XP Professional offers “more robust options for backing up and restoring data than Home Edition,” a feature that could be critical in dealing with critical data in the agency office.

Other features found only in XP Professional include advanced networking for multiple PCs, a feature that lets you host and manage personal Web sites, and support for multiple processor systems and languages.

On the whole, considering the small additional investment, XP Professional Edition probably would make sense for most agency offices, except possibly very small operations that dont anticipate growth.

So what about software? If youve done your homework, you already should know what you need new and what you might need to update. The problem is that most PCs today come loaded with a variety of software, much of which you will never likely use.

In some cases, especially if youre custom configuring your new system, youll have more flexibility in choosing what you want and what youd rather not have. Depending on where youre buying your systemsa subject well delve into in a future articleyou may be able to trade off useless applications for those that would be helpful.

As always, however, try to look ahead and anticipate what programs might be useful in the future, even if you dont need them now. For example, you may not see a need for Microsoft PowerPoint (software that helps you put together on-screen presentations) in your agency at present. Then again, maybe youd like your agents to have such a presentation ready for new customers or for certain lines of business.

Once the decision to purchase software is looked at as a business decision, the choice should be more obvious.

Among the basic kinds of software that make sense for most agency officesbeyond the obvious applications such as word processing, contact management and agency management systemsare the following:

Virus Protection Software is an essential in this age of cybercrime. The key is to buy a product that updates itself automatically via the Internet.

Firewall Software is also a necessity. Make sure you get a system that scans both incoming and outgoing information, thus preventing the intentional or unintentional leakage of proprietary information from your systems.

Maintenance Utility Software helps you keep your cyberdesk clean by allowing you to manually or automatically delete unused files, shortcuts and other data. Most of these programs can be customized to meet your unique needs and can be set to perform cleanup functions as often as you like.

Spyware, despite its menacing name, can be useful where an agency suspects employees of sending out proprietary information, or of spending too much time on nonbusiness Web sites, thus diminishing productivity. This software monitors the use of computers on your network and reports back via a log. Use of such software, while it is legal, may be a touchy matter, however, so take into account the likelihood that employees might resent being watched in such a manner.

One final note about software: Dont be tempted to make illegal copies of any applications you purchase. Read your licensing agreement and know your rights, but dont think that you cant be discovered if you make a few extra copies for home or for additional computers. Companies have been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for such infractions, and the software industry continues to develop new monitoring methods.

In future articles in this series well deal with how and where to buy your computers, as well as purchasing peripherals (such as printers), and choosing a method of connecting to the Internet.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, October 3, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.