Frankly Speaking: Ready for RC1?

Here it comes, ready or not.Microsoft has announced that the first release candidate for Windows Vista is ready. Vista RC1 is already on its way to 2 million beta testers who have seen previous builds of Vista. That's no big deal for corporate IT; we've all been through successive waves of prerelease Windows versions. The testers in the beta programs tend to be pretty well behaved.

But there's also a full-scale tsunami headed our way: Microsoft plans to bundle RC1 with 2 million computer magazines. These "cover mount" DVDs won't go to selected IT people. They'll wind up in the hands of anyone who drops a few bucks for a magazine.

And you know what that means. Among those 2 million magazine buyers will likely be some of your users -- and they'll be eager to try this almost-free, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Vista as soon as they can.

Thought you had until January, didn't you?

It's hard to blame Microsoft for what's really a smart marketing move. Vista is seriously late, and its most buzz-worthy features have been stripped away to get it out the door. Giving away millions of free copies that will continue to work until next May is a good way to seed the market. Who says Microsoft hasn't learned anything from Netscape and Linux?

Still, for us, in the hands of all those enthusiastic power users, Vista RC1 is a threat. We don't know what it will break or what risks it will create. And we don't have control over how it will hit us -- or time to clean up a mess.

We need to do more than just neutralize that threat. We need to turn it into an advantage. How can you do that? Simple: Lay down the rules for those free RC1 users -- and then turn them into Vista testers of your own.

Step 1:Keep RC1 outside your perimeter. Make this an absolute, non-negotiable directive for your users. Explain that this is beta software that uses unknown protocols, may have unknown security holes and could cause unknown problems with production applications. You just don't know, and you can't risk the business and their livelihoods by letting it in yet. So no smuggling in RC1 to install on PCs in the office.

Step 2: Start to test RC1 as soon as you can peel that DVD off the magazine cover. Top priority: finding firewall settings and antivirus software that works. Next up: checking your standard Web browsers, e-mail clients and instant messaging systems. Then seeing how well your company's external Web site works with it. And finally, seeing whether your production applications will break when they hit Vista. Why in that order? Because next is ...

Step 3: Get ready for users with RC1 to connect to your systems. You know some of them will, once they've installed RC1 on their home PCs. Yeah, they shouldn't use it. But if you forbid it, you'll waste time playing cat-and-mouse as they try it anyway. So before they connect, require that they have personal firewalls and antivirus software installed -- and absolutely no VPNs.

Step 4: Get feedback. Yes, really. Any users who can secure their Cracker Jack box RC1 installations and get them working properly are users you want to hear from. They'll tell you what works and what doesn't, including all those obscure pieces of software you haven't officially sanctioned but you know users have anyhow.

Step 5: Keep talking to those RC1 users. Tell them what you've learned, and keep picking their brains. You'll get invaluable insight into what problems the rest of your users will likely hit with Vista. You'll be injecting knowledge into the people most likely to answer co-workers' questions. You'll also make allies of these power users. You can make good use of that valuable connection later, both when Vista finally arrives and when you're doing other projects.

But start building it now. Because RC1 is coming -- whether you're ready or not.

And the one thing you can't afford is not.

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