The desktop OS dilemma -- more confused than ever

It's amazing how time flies in this industry. Almost three years have passed since Microsoft released its Windows 95 operating system. Roughly five years have gone by since the company shipped its first release of Windows NT.

As the years have passed, Windows has certainly blossomed into the most popular platform in the corporate desktop environment. But popularity aside, even as Microsoft is poised to ship yet another version of the ubiquitous operating system, deciding which version to deploy across your company's desktops is a more agonizing proposition than ever before.

But why, in the face of Windows' dominance, has choosing a desktop platform become so difficult? Ironically, choice is the primary culprit -- too much choice. The recent excess of options has been fueled by an influx of new technologies, including the re-emergence of the thin-client computing paradigm. The emergence of a variety of different Windows platforms is causing problems for corporate IT managers. Netscape's Marc Andreesen is right when he talks about "the Unixification of Windows."

There are no easy answers, but it shouldn't be so difficult to make a desktop platform decision. Here are a few thoughts to help guide your thinking.

First, don't let vendors drive change. This sounds simple, but it is easy to forget that implementing technology for technology's sake does not a good IT decision make. It's easy to get caught up in something that looks or even sounds cool, but if a product doesn't solve a real business problem or move you closer to a business goal, then it probably isn't worth your time or money.

Next, there is a big corporate dilemma concerning standardization versus specialization. Do you cut support costs by using a single desktop platform or do you use the right tool for the job where it's warranted? Unfortunately, this dilemma is constant. You will always be moving from solutions that you deployed yesterday to solutions that are coming out tomorrow.

It's the applications that count

Technology is always changing at a rapid pace and so is business. You need to standardize where it makes sense, yet be flexible in the face of change. When considering a standardization plan, don't lose site of your applications.

Applications are the elements that make us more productive, not the operating system. The OS merely enables us to build and use those applications. Keep that in mind and build a strategy of standardization around your core applications and processes.

In most large companies these solutions are not built-in desktop productivity applications. However, applications at the personal and workgroup levels do rely heavily on productivity tools, so take that into consideration when contemplating Windows alternatives, such as thin clients.

When considering thin-client alternatives, keep in mind the three key benefits associated with deploying terminals. These benefits are reduced client hardware costs (both in acquisitions and maintenance), centralized application deployment and policy management, and location-independent access to your personal workspace.

There are other ways to achieve these benefits, but make sure that these goals are of dominant importance in your IS strategy when looking to thin-client solutions.

Finally, let's settle the Windows 95/Windows 98 vs. Windows NT question. Strategically, for companies that are planning to further standardize on Windows platforms, Windows NT is and will be a better desktop OS choice. This is chiefly due to Windows NT's better security, stability, and application performance on high-end hardware.

But consider these qualifiers. In the short term, Windows 95 and Windows 98 will provide a more suitable feature set for portable computers. And Windows 98 will provide better support for the latest hardware advances until the release of Windows NT 5.0. So, Microsoft's staggering of feature sets in these two products will continue to get the best of those of you who have been trying to standardize on one OS for some time.

At this point, not even Microsoft knows for sure when Windows NT 5.0 will ship, but the best estimates seem to place the product's release sometime in early to mid-1999. Meanwhile, how many of you are planning on rolling out new OS deployments in the middle of next year?

Lastly, consider that just as Windows 98 bumps up the minimum system requirements over its predecessor, the same can be expected for Windows NT 5.0. So if you're holding out for NT 5.0, you'd be well served to invest in hardware.

How are your desktop plans coming? Let me know how your organization's desktop strategy is shaping up.

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