Should you upgrade to the latest Windows OS?

If you're like most Windows 2000 Magazine readers, your first thought upon seeing this month's cover story about Windows XP was probably, "Not again!" Once more into the breach, dear friends, as power users in your company start banging on your door to ask for the new wonder OS from Microsoft. The silver lining? You don't have to swap out all your servers. XP's server product, Windows .NET Server (formerly code-named Whistler), won't be available until early 2002, so you have some breathing room to prepare for that move. But how do you determine whether all the excitement over XP is masking hype or a worthy OS?

The Legacy OS Factor
If you're already a Win2K shop, your path is clear. Although Microsoft has publicly expressed surprise at the large numbers of Win2K users who are champing at the bit to switch to XP, the improvement is incremental and, if your Win2K environment is stable, probably not worth the upgrade. If you believe features such as Remote Assistant and Remote Desktop are important in your environment, you might want to consider the change. But in most cases, I don't think XP's UI is a sufficient improvement over Win2K's UI to invest the effort necessary to deploy the new OS.

The situation is more complex if your client systems are still on the Windows 9x code base. No direct upgrade path to XP exists for any machine running Win95. In addition, most pre-1999 hardware will be barely adequate to run XP. The XP code descends from the Windows NT code, so any machine whose resources were inadequate to run NT is suited for the recycling heap when you make your XP migration plans. Therefore, if you plan to move from Win95 to XP, you'll need to buy new hardware for your users. Keep in mind that if you run Win95 because you have a mission-critical application that won't run on NT, you might be able to run that application on XP. The Os's application compatibility mode, although not a DOS emulator, makes allowances for DOS-dependent application behavior. (However, if your application requires a hardware-specific virtual device driver—VxD—you won't be able to run the application on XP.)

If you run Win98 (with any Win98 permutation, such as Windows 98 Second Edition—Win98SE—or Windows Me), the time has come to bite the bullet and upgrade. If you stay with Win98, you're on the edge of losing your product channel. Microsoft maintains a 3- to 5-year window for sales and support of older products, and Win98 is moving into the area between "We guarantee that we will sell and support it" and "You want help with what? That'll cost you."

Aside from inertia and cost considerations, no compelling reason remains for staying on the Win9x code base. I don't suggest that you leap blindly to XP for all your clients—you must test your existing corporate applications first. Even with Microsoft applications, you need to make sure that any Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) scripts, Microsoft Excel macros, and similar programs behave as expected on XP. But Windows XP Professional Edition brings the same benefits that Win2K Professional brought to your clients. XP Pro's Remote Assistant and the OS's improved stability are additional reasons to make the move. At the very least, if your notebook users aren't already on Win2K, what are you waiting for? For the improvement in security and manageability alone, portable computers should be running XP or Win2K.

The Value in XP Pro
Many of the features in XP that Microsoft is hyping can be off-putting to corporate IT staff. The ability to play DVD video, the improved media player, the inclusion of a movie-making application, and embedded instant messaging don't make for a compelling corporate upgrade and would lead you to think that XP's primary target is the home user. Make sure you don't confuse the cheaper XP Home Edition with XP Pro; you won't be able to log on to your corporate domains with XP Home.

XP Pro contains features that have received very little press but that are useful in the corporate environment. For example, Encrypting File System (EFS) now has multiuser support; if you have systems with multiple users, you can encrypt files in the native file system for additional security and still let different users access the files. Some useful features exist in what Microsoft calls the Adaptive User Environment. For example, I'm frequently asked how to turn off the personalized menus feature of earlier Windows OSs and applications. XP lets you easily turn off these features through Group Policy control as well as individually. In addition, a new feature concatenates all an application's open windows onto one taskbar button. Positioning the cursor over this button will display a pop-up list of all the windows that the button represents. This feature means you won't get squished boxes on the taskbar for each item when you have a bunch of open Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) or Microsoft Outlook windows (although you can configure the OS to compress the boxes).

In XP, task menus are finally context-sensitive. When you right-click a filename, a pop-up menu with tasks that are specific to that file type will display. One of my favorite features, and a strong reason to move your laptop users to XP, is DualView. This feature lets you drive two monitors from one display adapter. A laptop with the right hardware could use both the LCD panel and another display simultaneously, with the second display extending the desktop. ClearType is the display mechanism XP uses for laptops, which improves the appearance of onscreen text.

Finally, XP understands network locations. With XP, you can have multiple network configurations on your notebook, and when you switch networks, the appropriate configuration will be available without you having to jump through any hoops. Windows' inability to retain the proper network configurations has been a support headache in the past, and XP's improved network-configuration management is a compelling reason to move your traveling users—even if they're running Win2K—to XP. Add in the system snapshot capability that XP provides as part of the System Restore utility (present in Windows Me but not in Win2K), and the support picture looks even brighter.

A Clear Choice
The hassle and aggravation that accompany an OS upgrade are well known. However, with XP, distinct advantages exist for almost every class of user. For one, you can finally move all your users (and servers, for that matter) to a unified code base. You'll no longer need to ask, "What version of Windows are you running?" when you field calls on the Help desk. You'll hear fewer complaints about system crashes. The improved user experience for IT staff and business users makes the XP upgrade a potential improvement in user satisfaction all around. And XP should make your IT staff's lives easier. You can't ask much more from a piece of software.