To XP or Not to XP

Microsoft's newest operating system may be just the tool public agencies have been waiting for.

by / August 31, 2001
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.

Making life easy for remote users is one of the cornerstones of XP. For example, XP offers zero configuration for wireless networks, a feature that will become more important in coming months and years. If an officer equipped with a laptop running XP visits a remote location with a wireless network, he can begin work immediately without reconfiguring his or her computer. This universal plug-and-play capability uses standard TCP/IP and Internet protocols, and Microsoft hopes that the added flexibility will help XP-based computers find a home in current and future home automation, audio/visual and automobile networking scenarios, to name just a few.

Talking Tech
With XP on the market, Microsoft has officially retired the Windows 9x code base that originated with DOS machines. XP is built on the code base that supports Windows NT and 2000, and is expected to bring with it greater stability and crash protection over the long haul.

By fixing problems associated with Windows 2000 and using that code base, Windows XP can be considered "the .1 release of 2000," said Rob Enderle, research fellow at Giga Information Group. Even though it is unusual for fiscally conservative government offices to adopt an early release of a software product, XP's increased reliability makes it a good bet, Enderle said.

As an additional buttress to stability, XP incorporates utilities to help the user recover from a problem. The driver rollback feature saves a copy of a previous set of drivers -- except for printers -- when installing new ones, allowing for easy restoration in case of problems. And the system restore feature allows a user to go back to a previous state after a crash, protecting documents, e-mail and personal files without the need to run a third party restoration utility.

Microsoft is also using XP to increase its profile in the photo editing and multimedia arenas, an area in which Macintosh has traditionally held sway. Although the contest for dominance is too close to call, two features in this area will be of interest to government agencies. System administrators running XP Professional will be able to restrict certain media playback formats, reducing the strain on the network caused by employees listening to music on their desktop, for example. And XP's compression capabilities will make it easier for field agents such as police officers to take digital photos and send them back to the office quickly.

Additionally, if new editions of Windows seem to be appearing with great frequency, Microsoft is at least attempting to make the migration as painless as possible. XP includes a file and settings transfer wizard that allows users to migrate their files and preferences without the need to purchase a separate transfer utility.

Is XP for You?
Despite some improvements over Windows 2000, even Microsoft admits there are some offices that should not deploy XP. "If you're thinking about upgrading to Windows 2000 or are [currently] deploying it, just stay on Windows 2000," Moran said.

Moran recognized that a great deal of thought is put into investigating and deploying a new operating system, and he recommends that those who are already committed to Windows 2000 not change to XP simply because it is available.

However, Moran encouraged those offices beginning to think about an upgrade, considering new hardware purchases or investigating what's out there to wait for XP. Enderle agreed, advising that waiting to buy a new machine that comes bundled with XP this fall rather than opting for a Windows 2000 machine will allow offices to double their replacement cycle from 18 months for Windows 2000 to nearly three years for XP.

There is a good reason to restrict the deployment of XP to newer hardware. Like each previous version of Windows, XP requires a substantial amount of your computer's memory: 128MB of RAM and about 2GB of free hard drive space. Those PCs that boasted such seemingly massive hard drives just two or three years ago may not have enough space for XP today.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of XP is the fact that it could allow you to avoid having to upgrade during the life cycle of a new PC. This is not to say that Microsoft won't continue to develop new XP releases and entirely new operating systems. "We're constantly improving and adding new features," Moran said.

But, given Microsoft's commitment to this unified code base, this iteration of Windows could be one of the most enduring to come along in quite some time.