Learning a new Windows user interface (UI) has always been a challenge. When Microsoft introduced Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 95, major changes to the UI accompanied the OSs. Was your learning curve intuitive and natural with NT 4.0 and Win95, or did you struggle to find the new screens that would let you accomplish familiar tasks?

You can look forward to the same problems when you migrate to Windows 2000 (Win2K). Microsoft has oriented the Win2K UI toward inexperienced users. So what can systems administrators do to bring themselves up to speed with the UI? Aside from using a few marginally effective tools that Microsoft provides, not much. Many NT systems administrators learn Win2K by installing a beta and jumping in. Most struggle to locate familiar functions. For example, you can't access system services in Control Panel—system services now lurk one level deeper under Administrative Tools.

Let's look at what might be an ideal Win2K transition for an experienced systems administrator. You begin by booting up your Windows 2000 Server (Win2K Server) installation CD-ROM and working through the installation procedure. Early in the installation process, the OS lets you choose a custom installation, and a subsequent option lets you select a profile that matches the machine's primary user (e.g., an NT 4.0 systems administrator). When you first log on to the system and begin to cruise through Administrative Tools, Control Panel applets, and right-click context menus, you notice that some of the menu icons have an added element—a small box that contains a left-pointing arrow. This icon represents a retro shortcut. When your mouse hovers over an icon with a left-pointing arrow, a context-sensitive Help panel appears, informing you that the location for the management function has changed and describing the new Start menu and context menu paths to the current function. Clicking the icon takes you directly to the function.

You want to see which services Win2K Server installed by default, so you look for the Control Panel Services applet. You find a retro shortcut with a Help panel that tells you the shortcut will take you to Programs, Administrative Tools, Services. The Help panel also tells you that you can find Services in the new Computer Management interface, which you access by right-clicking My Computer, Manage, or can reach from the Start menu by way of Programs, Administrative Tools, Computer Management. Clicking the retro shortcut menu item displays a list of installed services. When you double-click a service, you find familiar configuration options and some new options. You follow the alternative paths that the Help panel describes and quickly discover the wealth of information available through the Computer Management interface.

Next, you want to see how Win2K Server configured your network environment, so you look for the Control Panel Network applet. You find it as another retro shortcut. The context-sensitive Help that appears when the mouse hovers over the item tells you that this shortcut will take you to Control Panel, Network and Dial Up Connections, Local Area Connection, Properties for lists of network services, protocols, and adapters. The Help panel also tells you that if you want to join a workgroup or domain (the functions of the Network Properties, Identification tab), you need to go to Control Panel, System, Network Identification. Win2K isn't so difficult to get used to after all.

We've all heard that the Win2K development effort has been the largest software project ever undertaken. It's a shame Microsoft didn't direct some effort to develop alternative versions of the Win2K UI for different user experience levels. Doing so would have cost more money, but perhaps less money than the Windows user community will spend on training and lost productivity. Has corporate self-interest triumphed over social conscience, or is this a market opportunity for a budding entrepreneur?