Over the past few years, there's been no shortage of Windows products from which to choose. Due out this fall is the newest version, Windows XP (the XP stands for experience). With the seemingly endless iterations of Windows out there, you may be tempted to skip this new OS. But passing on XP may mean missing out on productivity savings down the line, especially for offices with Windows novices or a shortfall of IT support staff. Ultimately, adopting XP could also mean cost savings for offices looking to extend the life of their operating systems and software.

Increasing Productivity

XP features a cleaner desktop appearance then earlier versions of Windows, "a whole different look and feel that will improve productivity," said Steve Moran, a Microsoft technology specialist manager who works with state and local government.

The interface is particularly novice-friendly. When the start menu button is clicked, it now displays the user's five most active programs first, eliminating the need to wade through a lengthy menu. This new interface extends to the "My Documents" menu, which now allows users to arrange their files into groups by type, such as Word or Excel, or by modification date, keeping recently used files near the top.

Microsoft has also tweaked the task bar that appears at the bottom of the screen. In previous generations of Windows, users who habitually kept multiple documents open were eventually greeted with an unreadable blur of tiny buttons. XP now consolidates multiple uses of the same application into a single button with a pop-up menu. Users who wish to keep multiple Word documents open simultaneously will now see a single "Microsoft Word" button in the task bar that yields a pop-up list of currently open documents -- an improvement that could save both time and frustration. Tweaks such as these may make XP easier to learn and use.

Major Revisions

Saving a few mouse clicks, even on every desktop in an office, is not a compelling reason to deploy a new operating system. However, XP incorporates a number of new features that could translate to increases in productivity for offices on limited budgets.

Backward compatibility is one such feature. XP can run 95 percent of the most popular applications designed to run under Windows 2000, ME or 9x, said Moran, reducing the need for officewide application upgrades with the deployment of XP.

This effort toward compatibility is clearly in response to critics of Windows 2000 who complained they had difficulty running older software under the new operating system. Additionally, a new application compatibility database holds fixes for a number of applications that would not run under Windows 2000.

Windows XP also features automatic update capabilities. This feature allows XP to contact the Microsoft Web site to secure bug fixes and install them automatically. For those who are concerned about their system roaming the Internet unsupervised, the feature can be turned off or set to alert the user before patches are installed.

Security over the Internet is an increasing concern. According to Moran, Internet Explorer 6, which will come bundled with XP, will allow users a greater level of control over accepting third party cookies, those snippets of information that are requested by Web sites and banner advertisers and transmit information about your computer configuration. These security improvements may ease, although not eliminate, Internet-based security concerns.

Microsoft has also considered convenience with its new OS. XP offers a remote help-desk feature that may prove to be a money saver for offices with limited support personnel or employees spread across multiple locations. With this capability, a help-desk technician or trainer at a remote location can log into a user's PC -- with the user's direct approval -- and conduct training and troubleshooting.