XP rewards our patience

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 Corp.'s flagship desktop operating system. Although Oct. 25 remains the official launch date for Windows XP, we know how quickly two months can pass, and IT departments will have plenty of issues with which to grapple. 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 your hardware is within the specifications, in-place upgrades may test the patience of a saint.

Microsoft's spokesmen and spokeswomen are making it clear that Windows XP should be considered "Release 2.0 of Windows 2000." But Windows XP also is 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 we wonder 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. 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 you have a heavily customized system or if your 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 Aug. 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 testbed, 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 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 hassle 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 under way, 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 (almost) 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.

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P.J. Connolly

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