It's showtime for WinXP

A lot is riding on Windows XP, the much anticipated operating system unveiled by Bill Gates in New York Thursday morning. Touted in dozens of events around the country, XP carries with it the hopes of both Microsoft Corp. and a beleaguered PC industry for a way out of the high tech recession.

Now shipping in several configurations and preloaded on an estimated 50 million PCs introduced by hopeful vendors, Windows XP offers better stability and many consumer-friendly features. The OS also promotes Microsoft's copious online services, key to its nascent .Net strategy of Web applications to be delivered to PCs, cell phones, digital organizers, and other devices.

It is an open question whether these features will be compelling enough to convince the public that XP is worth the inevitable upgrade hassles, but Microsoft is pulling out the stops and spending US$200 million to promote the new OS.

Continuing a tradition of flashy sendoffs for the company's operating systems, Gates was joined onstage Thursday by New York City's Mayor Giuliani, who expressed gratitude that the event was held in New York. Regis Philbin also joined Gates on stage for an XP round of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Philbin joked: "If anyone needs a million dollars, it's you." Sting performed a concert preceding the launch.

What the people think

Many of the attendees of the New York event, which drew a mix that ranged from consumers to information technology managers, seemed to like what they heard. "I'm absolutely upgrading," said New Jersey resident Jeff Mintz. Consumers and businesses unanimously put system reliability at the top of their lists of reasons why they planned to upgrade. Other reasons ranged from "practical" to a "gut feeling."

"XP has got a lot of new car smell. I just want it," Mintz said.

While similar sentiments were heard at events and stores around the country, many people said that they were going to take a wait-and-see approach before migrating to Windows XP.

"How many Microsoft products are fully baked at introduction?" questioned William Bragg, an instructor at ITT Technical Institute. Interviewed at a San Francisco launch event, Moore said he's been running a beta of the operating system on a "mule" in his garage, but he doesn't recommend anybody install it during the first 90 days.

"In six months it will be a much better product," he said.

Rod Thole, an independent IT consultant, is also leery of the first versions of XP.

"I'd only recommend it at this time if you're buying a new system," he said. His biggest concern: driver issues.

"The rest of the industry will take a few months to catch up," he said. "That's why I would wait."

Hardware an issue

The operating system's hardware requirements also give pause to some potential users.

Mark Mastrounni, a network engineer who works for a Baltimore-area medical management company with 60 desktop PCs, said his firm would have to replace 80 percent of its hardware to meet XP's system requirements.

(XP requires a 233-MHz CPU, 64MB of RAM, and 1.5GB of open hard disc space.)Nevertheless, Mastrounni said the OS's remote-control desktop feature would be the most helpful for him as an administrator.

"Now, if there's a problem, I have to go out to the machine, or we'd have to install a third-party product for remote access, and that's just not cost effective," he said.

The cost of replacing computers is an issue, he said, but features like remote access could make it worthwhile.

"That's tough to look at," Mastrounni said. "But so many of our machines are aging machines, we're starting to have hardware problems--so it's going to happen anyway."

And with computer prices lower than ever, he said, "now's the time."

Beleaguered PC vendors are hoping that millions of others will come to the same conclusion.

Will software drive hardware?

Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Carly Fiorina said she is counting on Windows XP to drive sales of the company's Pavilion PCs as well as related peripherals such as its printers, digital cameras, and Jornada line of handheld computers.

HP said it will be releasing a wireless home networking product taking advantage of Windows XP's added network support. Compaq is boosting its support options with Windows XP System Restore capacity. Sony said audio and video runs much more reliably on its XP systems.

"Windows XP is robust and reliable," said Chris Pollitt, director of Sony's PC product marketing. "Our peripherals are instantly recognized when they plug into a PC. Now users can feel more comfortable doing more."

Others are not so sanguine. According to a report by Gartner Dataquest, Microsoft's latest OS should stir up consumer interest this holiday season. But sales are likely to fall well short of the tech sector's pre-September 11 expectations.

"People aren't going to buy new PCs if they feel uneasy about their jobs and are preoccupied with events going on around the world," Steve Kleynhans, analyst with Meta Group.

What about Windows 2000?

The OS may also be less than attractive to people who migrated to Windows 2000 in the last year. XP is built on the same basic technology as Windows 2000, which was aimed at professional users. XP has both home and professional versions.

Businesses that already run NT Workstation or Windows 2000 Professional already have XP's chief benefit: stability, said Steve Kleynhans, analyst with Meta Group. Other features touted with Win XP such as digital photo editing, a personal firewall, and better support for MP3 audio are great for consumers, but aren't of much value to corporations, he said.

Bob McDowell, the Microsoft vice president who hosted the Seattle launch event, acknowledges that Windows 2000 users aren't likely to upgrade immediately.

"If you're standardized on a [Windows] 2000 environment, would I push to move to XP now? Probably not," McDowell said. "But if you're in a mixed environment, with 95, 98, 2000, and even others, making the move to XP should be a no-brainer." Microsoft will continue to support those other operating systems, he stressed; but he cites the new release as "the most compelling reason to standardize."

Enthusiasts a key

The wild card in Microsoft's marketing model are technology enthusiasts. While a comparatively small group, enthusiasts tend to be highly vocal in both their praise and condemnation. Their word-of-mouth reviews of this OS, like others before it, will also be a factor in the success or failure of Windows XP.

Enthusiasts were the reason CompUSA opened 225 stores at midnight Thursday, hoping to recreate the excitement surrounding the launch of Windows 95 six years ago.

In downtown San Francisco, only three dozen people had lined up Wednesday night before the store reopened, far fewer than store staffers had expected. And only a handful of those first customers said they had come to buy Windows XP. The others were drawn by promotions for other products, including free inkjet printers and system RAM for a limited number of customers, which CompUSA offered in ads for its "Midnight Madness" event.

Once the store opened, however, every third or fourth person on line at the cash register had a copy of Windows XP in their shopping basket. Some, like Internet security specialist Harris Schwartz, 34, had no specific reason for upgrading aside from simply wanting to keep abreast of Microsoft's latest OS. "I've just heard some good things about it," Schwartz said.

"I like to keep up with the latest technology," said Kevin Stevens, 27, adding that he felt especially motivated to familiarize himself with Windows XP because he is studying to be a Microsoft certified engineer.

A few customers appeared to have boned up on XP well in advance. Bernard Kruger, 49, said he'd been preparing to upgrade his home office for some time, checking to make sure that all his equipment was compatible with the new OS. Kruger, who had bypassed Windows Millenium Edition and Windows 2000, cited XP's much touted stability as a main reason for upgrading. He was also impressed by XP's strict new oversight on device drivers, so that attempts to install noncertified drivers will elicit warnings of possible problems.

"I love standards, and I hate clashing drivers. I'm glad to see Microsoft moving in a direction where drivers are forced to comply," Kruger said.

Pluses and minuses

Most beta testers and analysts agree that Windows XP's greatest feature is its stability. And pundits applaud Microsoft for its smart integration with the Internet and its stylish new design features. They are equally pleased with usability improvements that empower you to handily perform sophisticated PC tasks such as receiving or administering remote desktop assistance.

But Windows XP is also drawing complaints. Microsoft's Windows Product Activation policy, for example, is drawing grumbles from privacy advocates. The installation of Windows XP requires you give Microsoft electronic access to your PC so it can take a digital snapshot of hardware components. Microsoft says this stops one copy of its software from being installed illegally on multiple PCs. Privacy advocates worry that Microsoft is collecting increasing amounts of data from users.

"Product activation is costing my customers time, money, and headaches," said Alan Linker, a New Jersey technology consultant. Linker said introducing XP to one of his clients will mean authenticating 11,000 individual PCs.

Another disappointment is deletion of Java Virtual Machine in the operating system. The first time you encounter a Java-based Web site after installing XP, you'll be prompted for a hefty download, and will have to install the Java program on your PC.

Gates said on Thursday that Windows XP supports all computer languages, but wasn't going to support one over another "religiously."

Windows' walled garden of features that point to Microsoft services smacks of greed with some users and competitors.

As with the My Music folder, rivals charge that XP pushes you not only to Microsoft's software applications but also to Microsoft's online music store and print-ordering partners such as Fujifilm. Kodak has been in a public battle with Microsoft over how My Pictures operates.

Microsoft wants to know

The new operating system also carries and promotes Microsoft's online identification system, called Passport. Online identification and authentication is necessary for the data exchange envisioned in Web services, but Passport has brought criticism from privacy advocates concerned about one company's handling the personal data of millions of people.

For example, if you try to use the Windows Messenger program, you're told you must sign up for a Passport.

For its part, Windows XP represents the technology Microsoft will use to get more Passport accounts and deliver a range of new Internet services for consumers and corporations that it sees as the future of computing.

In this sense the Windows operating system is part of the .Net. technology "platform." .Net is a broad project through which Microsoft hopes to provide tools, software, and services that will help turn the Internet into a giant network for delivering applications and services to all kinds of devices from PCs to cell phones.

Some of these services debut today with the official relaunch of Microsoft's MSN 7 portal. .Net Alerts service, for example, is essentially an automated messaging system that tracks dynamic information including news, stocks, and traffic reports. You can program alerts for delivery as an e-mail message or an instant message delivered to MSN's client Windows Messenger. You can also program .Net Alerts to go to a myriad of Net-connected devices.

Other .Net services that become integrated in the Windows Messenger software client are being offered by companies such as communications giant Verizon, which will alert you to messages left on your voice mail sytem.

Another is antivirus vendor McAfee, which has created a .Net service to automatically alert its customers of a new computer virus. Online auctioneer eBaywill apprise customers with .Net Alerts of their bid status.

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Tom Spring

PC World
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