10 NT-related products and resources to embrace—or avoid

As I prepare for Windows 2000 (Win2K), I find myself looking back over the past 6 years of Windows NT and the past 50 issues of Windows NT Magazine. In my October 1999 column, I summarized some of the advice that I've offered over the years in this column, highlighting recommended practices for installing, configuring, and running NT. This time, I look at 10 aspects of NT-related companies, products, features, and resources that deserve recognition—good and bad. You might find some of these items useful, but you probably need to avoid others. I award a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down to each item's important aspects, and because I don't collaborate with anyone on this column, the voting is unanimous.

SQL Server 7.0
My first thumbs-up goes to Microsoft—not for NT, but for a product that Microsoft has tightly integrated with NT. In my opinion, SQL Server 7.0 is the best product the company has ever produced. The software is a huge step forward from the previous version—in scalability, ease of use, and features. For the first release of a completely rewritten product, SQL Server 7.0 is remarkably stable. The addition of the OLAP services component brings data warehousing to a level that many companies can afford.

However, I must turn my thumbs down to Microsoft's marketing division, which apparently doesn't understand SQL Server 7.0's importance. If the company marketed the product effectively, SQL Server 7.0 could be Microsoft's flagship product.

NTFSDOS
A thumbs-up to the folks at Systems Internals (formerly NT Internals) for their recoverability software. If you need to recover data from a damaged NT Server installation, you can use NTFSDOS to read the disks. Then, with a program such as Traveling Software's LapLink, you can move the data to another computer.

Ghost
An enthusiastic thumbs-up to Symantec's Norton Ghost cloning software. As a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT), I frequently find myself setting up a dozen identical computers in a classroom late on a Sunday evening. If you need to install hundreds or thousands of computers, a program such as Norton Ghost is a necessity.

Partition Magic
A thumbs-up to PowerQuest for Partition Magic, software that lets you resize disk partitions without losing the data the partitions contain. This capability is useful when you receive a computer with preloaded software but with disks that are not partitioned the way you want them to be.

PowerQuest gets a thumbs-down, however, for its ridiculous licensing scheme. Partition Magic is a useful tool, and PowerQuest needs to market it as such. For example, when you buy a wrench at a hardware store, you expect to be able to use the wrench on several different cars. The hardware store wouldn't force you to buy another wrench to work on a second car. PowerQuest licenses its software this way: You need to buy a license for every computer, even though you might use Partition Magic only once during the computer's lifetime—and then for only 10 minutes. For software that I use constantly (e.g., an antivirus package) or that I use periodically (e.g., a disk defragmenter), I don't mind buying a license for each computer. But software such as Partition Magic belongs in your toolkit, and you'll want to run it directly from a CD-ROM rather than from your hard disk. PowerQuest needs to license Partition Magic accordingly. Paying a little more for one license would be reasonable; after all, a wrench costs more than a disposable cotton swab. PowerQuest offers license packages, but the company prices them for the large corporate user, not for the small business user or consultant.

Borland employed a different licensing strategy. Some of Borland's early software licensing conformed to the analogy of buying a book—only one person reads the book at a time, but any number of people can read it sequentially. As I recall, Borland's license agreement stated that you could load the software on as many computers as you wanted, but only one person at a time could run the software. This licensing model has given way to the more restrictive one-license-per-computer model. Perhaps we all deserve a thumbs-down for not speaking up when software companies changed this licensing model.

Newsgroups
A thumbs-up to Microsoft for hosting newsgroups that foster the exchange of information and expertise about Microsoft products. And another thumbs-up to the newsgroup volunteers who answer numerous questions. You can rarely stump these professionals, who have the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon, and an MCSE certification or equivalent. But the real benefit of newsgroups and forums is that, with so many people contributing, somebody will have the experience to help you with your problem. Configure your newsgroup reader to connect to http://msnews.microsoft.com to take advantage of Microsoft's forums. My favorite newsgroup reader is Forte's Agent (http://www.forteinc.com) because it deletes messages only when I tell it to, not when the messages disappear from the server.

The Browser-Based Interface
A thumbs-down in general to browser-based interfaces. A browser is itself an interface, and not a very good one. Browsers are OK for browsing (i.e., looking around) but aren't useful when you want to do something (e.g., map a drive, add a user). In the good old days, a menu was a menu, and its choices were obvious. Now, we get funny pictures on the screen that change color as we move the mouse over them—like employees looking busy as the boss walks by. What once took three mouse clicks now takes seven. I suspect that programmers who grew up with video games rather than corporate data-entry applications are designing today's interfaces.

Perhaps my biggest complaint arises from the fact that Microsoft insists I load Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0—before the company has thoroughly tested the product—to run software such as Win2K, SQL Server 7.0, or Systems Management Server (SMS) 2.0. The main idea behind browser-based interfaces is that you can use any browser to run the interface from anywhere. If SQL Server truly had a browser-based interface, I could use Netscape Navigator or Opera to run it. Instead of calling SQL Server's interface a browser-based interface, why not call it a proprietary interface that uses bits of other technologies, including parts of Microsoft IE?

Opera
A thumbs-up to my favorite browser, Opera. I like Opera because it's small, efficient, and functional. I can do most of what I want to do with the keyboard rather than the mouse. But the capability I like most about Opera is that it lets you simultaneously open multiple windows, as Screen 1 shows, the way File Manager did before the advances of Windows Explorer. I also like to support a product from a vendor that offers me a choice; I'm weary of installing each new version of IE every time I install a Microsoft product. Check out Opera at http://www.operasoftware.com. You have to pay for the browser, but at least the decision to pay is your choice.

DirecPC
Another thumbs-up to DirecPC for its satellite Internet downlink service. I needed a faster Internet connection at the office, but ISDN didn't offer much of an improvement over regular phone lines. Asymmetric digital subscriber lines (ADSLs) seemed attractive, but the phone company is perpetuating the myth that you can't get ADSLs if you live more than a few blocks from a central switching office. (That way, the phone company doesn't have to offer ADSLs in rural areas.) Although the uplink is still a standard phone line, the DirecPC system works on the premise that most of the traffic is downloads—a correct assumption most of the time.

Installation is straightforward. The most difficult aspect of installation is securing and aiming the dish. I installed the adapter card with no trouble: I simply removed the regular NIC, installed the satellite signal adapter, and reinstalled the NIC. My adapter is in an NT computer running Microsoft Proxy Server. With a standard phone connection, I was lucky to achieve 1Kbps-to-2Kbps download speeds. With the DirecPC downloads, 40Kbps-to-50Kbps download speeds are more common. Now, the company needs to start working on its uplink technology.

DirecPC deserves a thumbs-down for one aspect of its service. I used DirecPC's ISP, which lets you pick up email from other ISP email services via the satellite downlink. But I was shocked to find that the DirecPC ISP service doesn't permit you to download via an ordinary phone connection—the service works only via the downlink. Therefore, DirecPC's ISP is useless for anyone who travels. Other ISPs work fine—only the DirecPC ISP service has this major failing.

QuickBooks Pro
A software package that I depend on is Intuit's QuickBooks Pro. This accounting program is not perfect (e.g., its interface needs some work), but I give it a thumbs-up for its payroll features. I can easily determine various withholding amounts, how much to pay employees, how much to pay the federal government, and how much to pay the state. The program generates and prints the reports that the government requires. I still need to do the state reports manually, but at least the software gives me the data I need. Without this software, I would have to rely on a payroll service—at extra cost and inconvenience. As someone who believes that double-entry bookkeeping is illegal (or needs to be), I think this package is one of the best uses for a PC.

Windows 2000
A big thumbs-down to the mastermind behind the Windows 2000 name. In the dumbest move since New Coke, Microsoft's marketing wizards came up with a mundane name that will confuse everyone. Will the name need to change every 5 years as each new release comes out (3 years late, of course)? Gateway's Ted Waite, a fairly astute marketer, dropped the year from the Gateway 2000 brand name several years ago. He felt the number was taking on negative connotations because of the Y2K-bug hysteria and numerous other products jumping on the 2000 bandwagon. Microsoft should have followed his lead.

Many people will assume that Windows 2000 logically fits into the year-branded consumer version of the Windows OS—Windows 95, Windows 98, and now Windows 2000. If users perceive Windows 2000 as the successor to Windows 98, what's the upgrade path from NT 4.0? Microsoft has said that Windows 98 will be with us for a whole new generation. What will Microsoft name later versions of that OS—Windows 2000 Amateur Edition? The name Windows 2000 will cause a myriad of problems, not the least of which is, we have to rename this magazine.