By my calendar, it's been nearly four years since I installed the first beta of Windows XP that I deemed good enough for production use, and other than that first beta, Windows XP has worked rather well for me. I would even say it's the best operating system Microsoft has ever shipped. With Longhorn still lurking somewhere out in the mists of the distant future, it's time to take a look at the Windows client platform and how well it's still meeting business needs relative to competing products.
This is the longest period of time that Microsoft has gone without shipping a new version of its operating system. In this period, we've seen numerous versions of Linux emerge, each one more capable than the last, and Apple is on its third major revision of Mac OS X. While there are choices in the marketplace that should be given serious consideration, I still conclude that Windows is likely to remain the best one for business users.
At first glance, Windows XP appears to have stagnated. Nothing could be further from the truth. XP has gone through two major service packs, both of which have increased security, reliability and robustness. A lot of effort has gone into XP as well, and we've seen Media Center and Tablet PC versions emerge, both of which were significant for their markets, even if neither had much of an impact on business users.
But the bottom line is that XP has evolved from the standpoint of features, security, stability and reliability to a level that is good enough for most users. The ubiquitous nature of Windows means that it's the platform of choice for application development (I can't think of a mission-critical application that isn't on the Windows platform), and every PC in the past four years has fully supported Windows with the appropriate hardware drivers.
Both Linux and Mac OS have their adherents, as well as their uses within business computing. But Linux still lacks the breadth of applications (it's notably lacking a version of Microsoft Office) and overall hardware compatibility, and Mac OS limits user choice to Apple hardware.
But this isn't necessarily good news for Microsoft. Business users have very different needs from consumers, and much of the recent XP evolution has been consumer-focused and related to media and entertainment features. So Microsoft is going to have a challenge of its own. Whenever Longhorn ships, the company for the first time will confront a problem that its competitors have faced over the years: how to get users to move off what is perceived as a stagnated and boring platform that is good enough for business use. The competition is going to have a chance to woo customers from Microsoft, and that's why now is the time to be thinking about your operating system plans two to three years out.