As Microsoft edges ever closer to releasing a final version of Windows 2000 by the end of this year (or early in the next), many companies will face a choice. Those companies that have provided Windows 98 or Windows 95 to users at their desktops will have to decide whether to continue with the Windows 9x series or switch to Windows 2000 (formerly known as Windows NT 5.0).
Many companies, of course, decided years ago to switch from the consumer version, Windows 9x, to Windows NT. I believe - with the release of Windows 2000 - that the decision to use NT code on every desktop will have to be seriously considered by even more companies.
Developers who are working with the beta code of Windows 2000 say Microsoft is dedicating significant resources to fixing one of the biggest complaints people have about both Windows 9x and NT: inexplicable crashes, sometimes resulting in the "blue screen of death", a fatal system error that almost every user has suffered.
Microsoft commissioned a study in 1998 and found that about 40 per cent of Windows 95 users reported that their PCs "stopped working more than once a month". The figure for NT Workstation 4.0 was that "only" 15 per cent of such PCs crashed twice a month or more.
These aren't very reassuring numbers for 32-bit operating systems that are supposed to provide companies with reliability. Ironically, Microsoft posts these figures for all to see on a Web page touting the "high reliability" of NT 4.0.
The Windows 2000 development team, in contrast, seems to be trying to eliminate not only these unexpected crashes, but also planned reboots. The goal is to dramatically reduce reboots that are now required for a configuration change, a new driver, and so forth.
But will Windows 2000 be right for companies that have a major investment in Windows 9x on the desktop? I asked readers some weeks ago to comment, and I received several replies. (All names have been changed, because the product is still in beta testing.)Reader Bill Zymurgy says, "I believe Windows 2000 will make the job of network administrators easier than it has been with Windows NT [4.0]. For example, it will be much easier to customise the desktop settings for groups of users and have those settings follow them from workstation to workstation."
Microsoft management console
Zymurgy credits much of this to improvements in the Microsoft Management Console (MMC), a centralised set of tools. "MMC provides a standardised, Windows Explorer-like interface. Perhaps more importantly, it is easy to modify the consoles, or even create your own, without the need for programming."
His concerns with the current build reflect areas in which Windows 2000 is not yet fully integrated. "The management of the Active Directory is spread out over three MMC tools, and one snap-in, the Active Directory Schema Manager, is not installed in any of them."
Other readers confirm that Beta 3 of Windows 2000 is more stable for them.
"Blue screens? What's a blue screen?" asks Mabon Tierney. "I will highly recommend it to all my clients . . . unless Microsoft is determined to muscle me around with restrictive licences or a price that's out of line."
However, other respondents are concerned that Microsoft wants to "dumb down" the product to appeal to first-time users.
"Here's a product that's intended for computer professionals," writes Benny Jameson. "So they've renamed Network Neighborhood to 'My Network Places'. That's special. And when you open it up, one of the folders is 'Computers Near To Me'. That's pathetic."
Another perspective comes from beta testers who like the support they are getting and would like it to continue.
"I actually like this phase of the beta program," says Reese Boutran. "The OS is reasonably stable and yet I get free, 24-hour bug support from Microsoft. Find something that doesn't work, fill in the form, and within a day you get a reply saying, 'We've fixed that', 'No, it doesn't work', or 'Try this patch'. You don't get this after the product goes gold, do you?"
I guess we'll just have to wait and see, Reese. I plan to have more information about Windows 2000 in upcoming columns.
The readers whose comments I've printed will receive a free copy of Windows 98 Secrets. I won't be able to send out Windows 2000 Secrets as thank-yous for a little while yet (oops, revealed one of my own secrets).