Duty of care

Microsoft has announced and delivered another component of OneCare, an online product designed to keep your machine in tip-top condition. Some parts will be paid-for on a subscription basis, while others will continue to be free. I went to www.live.com and signed up for the beta of the OneCare Live program, and after a few mouse clicks I was downloading the new OneCare Live client, which runs on an XP computer.

Duty of care

First impressions are useful, and OneCare Live appears to be a quite comprehensive package of performance and stability tools. It takes over from the Windows Security Center application, and it’s through the new OneCare shell application that you get to all its features. These are the anti-virus, firewall and automatic system updates, all bundled under the Protection Plus moniker. Then there’s a Performance Plus section that allows you to run a Tune-Up, consisting of deleting unnecessary files, defragmenting the hard disk, a virus scan, a backup check and an update check from Microsoft. There’s also a Backup and Restore section that runs the backup application.

It would be easy to criticise this product as being a weak bundling-together of existing technologies, with a gallon or two of fresh paint daubed over the fascia. This would be a little unfair, though; for example, the new firewall application blocks both outbound and incoming traffic, which is a significant improvement over the inbound-only filtering of the XP SP 2 firewall.

The backup program is long overdue – I’ve been ranting for years about how Microsoft needs to really take the bull by the horns over the issue of backup, restore and disaster recovery. I don’t think this product goes anywhere near far enough, but it’s a start and might prove to be just about enough for many users.

However, there isn’t enough in OneCare to get the juices flowing, let alone anything that feels worth opening the wallet for. It’s early days, though, and maybe we’ll see a lot more bundled in future versions – the AntiSpyware technology is missing from this bundle at the moment, but that could just be a matter of beta updating and a muddle in the bundling. What is quite clear, however, is that Microsoft is striking hard into the core market dominated by the anti-virus companies, which have arguably had a rather cosy time of it for far too long. If OneCare forces these companies to write applications that hook into the promised new framework from Microsoft, then it will finally be possible to run multiple AV and scanning engines at the same time on the same machine. Then we’ll be able to make value judgements about their efficacy and worth in a real-world environment.

What Microsoft proposes to charge for the final bundle is still completely unknown, and indeed what shape or form that will take. Cautious optimism is thus allowable, even if it’s tainted with the unshakeable worry that we shouldn’t really be in this position in 2005/6.

Excel Inflated

Just as this column went to press, I installed the Beta 1 release of Office 12, the forthcoming release of Office due some time late next year. The changes in the product are huge – everywhere you look, something has been changed for the better, and this will be the biggest and most important release of Office practically since the first version over ten years ago.

I’ll be sharing the more interesting little details with you over the coming months, but I’ll start with a small but hugely significant change in Excel. Up until now, we’ve had to build our worksheets in a way that fitted within the size constraints of 256 columns (up to IU) and 65,536 rows. Both of these limits might seem quite generous, but they’re actually a serious drawback for a lot of data-oriented tasks that can be efficiently done within Excel. I routinely generate worksheets that have to span five or six sheets just because of the limitation on columns, for example. And 65K rows is nowhere enough for doing front-end analyses on large databases. So take a peek at the screenshot above of Excel 12. Yes indeed, that cell with the ‘Hello’ in it is cell XFD1048576, which should do quite nicely for the next few years, I hope.

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