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12/8/2009
09:00 AM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Windows 7 Upgrades Drop Ball On Data Migration

Today's experience of upgrading one's PC to a new operating system is qualitatively different from that of a decade ago. It's no longer so much about the OS. You've already got something decent; you're mostly adding new bells and whistles. What's different now is there's a lot more user data--pictures, e-mails and music/video files--to move over. And that experience, quite frankly, stinks.

Today's experience of upgrading one's PC to a new operating system is qualitatively different from that of a decade ago. It's no longer so much about the OS. You've already got something decent; you're mostly adding new bells and whistles. What's different now is there's a lot more user data--pictures, e-mails and music/video files--to move over. And that experience, quite frankly, stinks.I went through this over the weekend when I upgraded the family computer from Windows XP to Windows 7. Now it's not like this was a creaking old PC for which I'd have been better advised not to bother. It's a quad-core system which had been fitted with XP because that happened to be the easiest option at the time I built it.

But given my experience with Windows 7 -- I've liked it since the beta, and use it on one of my own machines (though I haven't yet upgraded my main home-office Vista box) -- I figured it was time to introduce the family. Prior to the install, I backed up the user data (not the settings, which I didn't really care about, but pictures, e-mails, etc.) to a portable hard drive.

Next, I installed a new, 250-GB SATA hard drive, both because it's better-performing than the sluggish IDE model already in there -- hey, it happened to be lying around when I built the box -- and because the old drive can serve as a handy, permanent archive. (Let's hope I remember to take a hammer to it when I discover it five years hence in some dusty bin.)

Next, I went through the install, which was a breeze, like it usually is for Windows 7. This in itself qualifies as a big user-experience enhancement from the old days, even understanding the fact that most users never upgrade their own OS -- they get it preinstalled on whatever new system they'll get or give this holiday shopping season.

Now came the time-consuming part -- moving that user data back from the portable drive onto Windows 7. The main thing that struck me here is that the reason this is such a pain isn't Microsoft's fault so much as it is an outgrowth of the maturity of computers, and the fact that they've insinuated themselves into the ecosystems of our lives.

In the old days, whatever stuff we had could fit on a few piddling floppies. (I'm exaggerating downward, but you get my point.) Today, most of us have so many docs and pictures, not to mention iTunes files, that we don't even have a proper inventory.

Regarding the pictures, I shudder to think what's going to happen in 20 years when my generation's kids are adults, and they ask to see the old shoebox of family snapshots, only to be told it's been, um, deleted.

This tsunami of personal data is has given rise to personal backup services like MobileMe and Mozy. It'd be a savvy move on Microsoft's part to include both an automated personal-data backup provision, and an OnStar-like subscription to same, with every OS install. (I say this realizing that you can back up your data onto DVDs, which most people don't do.) Perhaps Windows Live could morph into that, and in some sense its Microsoft's attempt at user lock-in (or loyalty). But, face it, for most folks Windows Live is just another name for Webmail.

I should add that Microsoft also has a tool, called Windows Easy Transfer, which is intended to help you move your files off your PC before you install Windows 7. (Though in my case, because I had replaced the hard drive, I wouldn't have helped me.)

However, I never even took a look at Windows Easy Transfer, because I didn't know about it. My suggestion here to Microsoft is, put up some screens at the beginning of the Windows 7 install, to point people in the direction of data-migration tools. Or include some on the Windows 7 install disk. I realize, having seen the "Windows 7 was my idea" commercials, that Microsoft has been dinged so much on long install and boot times that it's probably afraid to do anything which would tilt in that direction. Yet help in moving data would be valued by many users.

Anyway, so the docs and pictures migrated OK, but I hit the PITA prize when I tried to import my wife's Outlook Express e-mails from Windows XP into Outlook on Windows 7. Although Microsoft includes what's supposed to be an easy export-and-import tool on the respective programs, it mostly doesn't work unless the two email clients or on the same machine. Which they're not going to be when you're upgrading. (If you do a Google search, this turns out to be a well-known problem.)

After messing around for many hours creating archive inbox.dbx and outlook.pst files, and trying to import them into Outlook, I ended up hitting on a messy but effective solution. What made it work was going over to an older PC I happened to have which was equipped with both Outlook Express and Outlook. I had to export my wife's Outlook Express from the old hard drive on the PC I was upgrading to Windows 7. Then I had to go over to my Windows XP box, import the email archive into Outlook Express there.

On the Windows XP system, I migrated the emails from Express to regular Outlook. (The Microsoft "easy migration" process worked, because of the dual clients.) Then I exported the emails from Outlook, onto a portable hard drive, took that drive over to the new Windows 7 machine, and imported them into my wife's Outlook.

Not too terrible, but only if you're the designated home-IT support person. (I.e., folks without a computer geek in their household won't be able to do this.) So now all I've got left to worry about is what's going to happen when she brings home the WordPerfect disk from work and asks me to install it on the Windows 7 system.

Bottom line: Windows 7 is great, but I'd like to see better data-migration help, and then some kind of assistance getting my data backed up into the cloud.

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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.

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