Microsoft launched Windows XP with much fanfare last week in New York, and although I thought the event was rather tired and monotonous, the new OS is an exciting advance for desktop users, most of whom still use Windows 9x. In fact, Microsoft said that more than 400 million users boot Win9x systems every day, compared with about 70 million for Windows 2000 and Windows NT. Although most XP advances relate to digital media features, such as photos, music, and video, XP also offers some exciting new features for the enterprise, which I'll focus on this week.
First, some advice: If your organization has already standardized on Win2K on the desktop or if you're in the middle of migrating to Win2K, you can skip XP. Essentially, XP is Windows 2000.1, with a colorful (but optional) new interface and some other minor new features. But if you still use NT 4.0 or Win98, you might want to evaluate an upgrade. XP offers a nice compromise between the stability and reliability of Win2K and the compatibility of Win98. I discuss the various concerns of upgrading to XP on the SuperSite for Windows.
That said, here are the XP features that I think will benefit enterprise users most.
Everyone's talking about the bold blues of the new "Luna" UI, but the most compelling part of the new XP UI is the new task listing that appears in each Explorer window. These task lists change according to what you're viewing or which file you've selected. For example, if you open a folder containing image files, you'll see a task menu that includes View as a slide show, Order prints online, Print pictures, and Copy items to a CD. When you select an image file, the tasks change to Print this picture and Set as desktop background. Microsoft doesn't get a lot of credit for innovation, but the company certainly deserves praise for this feature. The task list feature works well and will help make anyone more productive.
Microsoft has honed its Win2K Server Terminal Services software into a must-have feature, and now XP offers a single-user desktop version in a feature called Remote Desktop. If you occasionally work at home or if you travel frequently, Remote Desktop will let you log on to your primary desktop computer from anywhere in the world, run applications remotely, and access crucial data files on the local network. You can run Remote Desktop full screen, which is virtually indistinguishable from the experience you'd get sitting at the actual system, or in a window, where you can alternate between the remote and local systems.
Although we can debate the physical gains of getting up and leaving your desk occasionally, system and network administrators can be much more productive if they don't constantly have to march over to a user's desktop to fix problems. And what if that user is in a remote office, far from the administrator?
With Remote Assistance, a person can use email, Windows Messenger, or file transfer to send a help request that lets an administrator remotely log on to a user's system and solve problems on that system. Better yet, the administrator can simply take over the system and fix it remotely, without ever having to stand up. Presumably, Microsoft will begin offering gym coupons if this feature is too successful.
Instant Messaging in the workplace? Yes, and if you don't see the immediate benefits of this communication tool, consider a few of the cool features available in the latest Windows Messenger client. Windows Messenger does text chats, of course, but it also performs PC-to-PC and PC-to-telephone audio calls and one-on-one video conferencing (add-ons from various third parties add true conference-call capabilities). You can send files, work collaboratively on documents, and sketch ideas on a common whiteboard, all without leaving your desk.
This type of functionality is especially important for organizations that are spread out geographically. By the next Windows release, I expect to be reporting on businesses that have completely phased out internal phone calls in lieu of XP's real-time communications features. This is a market just waiting to be tapped.
Stability and Reliability Improvements
In addition to the System File Protection (SFP) feature that debuted with Win2K, XP includes System Restore, which can bring your system back to a previously stable configuration, and Device Driver Rollback, which lets you roll back device drivers to the previous version in case of problems. Support for side-by-side DLLs helps prevent the infamous DLL Hell problem by making XP the first Windows OS that lets multiple versions of the same DLLs run side-by-side. This support means that those finicky applications that require a certain version of a certain DLL will run just fine on the new OS.
As with Win2K, XP supports hibernation, Advanced Configuration and Power Management (ACPI), offline files and folders, and hot-docking, although Microsoft has tweaked each of these features in this new release. But XP includes a number of new features that mobile workers will really appreciate, including the ClearType on-screen text enhancer; network location awareness, for seamlessly switching between networks on the fly; alternate IP addressing, for allowing "home" and "work" network settings for each network card; and support for 802.11-based wireless networking. XP's wireless-networking support is so good that I expect it to be the catalyst for a new generation of wireless networks in corporations, schools, homes, and public areas such as airports, coffee shops, libraries, and, eventually, public transportation.
Microsoft has come under fire for including full raw-socket support in XP, but this OS is arguably the most secure Windows client ever made. XP ships with an Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) that protects homes and small offices against common Internet-based attacks, while offering a platform on which third-party firewall makers can build more powerful solutions. It also supports Kerberos single-logon features and IP Security (IPSec) for secure VPNs. And like Win2K, XP supports NTFS and Encrypting File System (EFS), which lets you encrypt data on a per-file basis.
Next week, we'll discuss how Microsoft will improve XP post-launch and look at a few of the more unsavory aspects of Microsoft's latest release.