Business leaders questioning what they can expect to gain from Windows XP can stop wondering and start making plans to accommodate the latest release of Microsoft's flagship desktop operating system.
Our first look at the Windows XP Professional gold code indicates that even though fresh installations of the OS should experience minimal problems, assuming as always that the hardware it is running on is within the specifications, in-place upgrades may test the patience of a saint.
Microsoft's spokespeople have made it clear that Windows XP should be considered "Release 2.0 of Windows 2000". But Windows XP is also the new upgrade path for Windows NT 4.0 Workstation, Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, and Windows Millennium. This would be a tall order under any circumstances, and one wonders how many IT managers are actually going to try it. Microsoft's guidelines indicate that PCs shipped after January 2000 shouldn't have any serious problems running XP. We found no obstacles in our testing of the XP betas and release candidates on desktops from as far back as 1998, so that should give hope to anyone planning to wring a couple more years out of their current machines.
We hope that most IT managers don't try an in-place upgrade, particularly if they have a heavily customised system or if their display or network adapters aren't on the official hardware compatibility list, which is posted on Microsoft's Web site. Although in many cases it's possible to get by with Windows 2000 drivers, third-party utilities will require some fiddling, even if you use the new compatibility mode - which can simulate a Windows 95 or Windows NT 4.0 environment - as a stopgap. We're uncertain if this effort is worthwhile for any but the most obsessed.
Perhaps Microsoft's recent battering at the hands of the Code Red worm has made the company more open about security issues. We have to wonder, because when we went into the lab with the gold code on August 28 and set up our first machine with XP, Windows Update reported that a critical security fix was available for download. Needless to say, when setting up your own XP test bed, make sure you get all the available patches and keep checking for new ones.
In a "wipe and load" scenario, installing XP is a snap. The new quick format option for NTFS (NT file system) will save several minutes per system, when compared to performing a complete format before the installation. Although much ado has been made about the streamlined "clean" GUI (graphical user interface) in XP, if you like to keep everyone on the same page, it's no problem to revert to the Windows 95 GUI and enforce this through system policies. Policy-based management and remote-management features are the two main reasons why companies should bite the bullet and pony up the extra dollars for XP Professional instead of cutting corners by purchasing the XP Home edition for new laptops, for example.
Of course, most IT leaders will remain cautious and let Windows XP trickle into their shops instead of planning a mass rollout. The main advantage to a gradual approach is that you're less likely to have hassles with marginal configurations. The disadvantage is that you have to spend the extra time explaining why Mary gets XP while Joe has to wait for a new PC. In any event, it's probably easier to have a pilot project underway, while using the first XP Service Pack as a milestone. By then, most of the vendors that are going to update their software and utilities will have done so.
Overall, we're glad that the wait is over. Windows XP represents a long-delayed fusion of the Windows 9x and the Windows NT, Windows 2000 code bases, and it looks like our patience has been rewarded with a stable yet flexible operating system.
The Bottom Line
Windows XP Professional RTM, Consider
Under this new GUI is simply an improved Windows 2000. Some CTOs will pay an extra for policy-based management and remote control, but many will hold off as long as possible.
XP delivers a desktop OS that is as solid as Windows NT/2000 and as flexible as Windows 9x. It should go a long way toward maintaining Microsoft's dominance over the desktop.
+ Compatibility mode offers Win95, WinNT 4 "workalike" environments.
+ Single PC setup times greatly improved.
+ Easy upgrade from Windows 2000.
- Gold code lacks critical system fix.
- Driver support, vendor-supplied utilities may prove obstacles to upgrades.
COST (RRP $A)
XP Home: upgrade version $238; standard version $462.
XP Professional: upgrade version $462; standard version $675.
PC with 128MB RAM, 300MHz Pentium II, or compatible CPU.