Microsoft has announced the availability of two intriguing new upgrades that—at first glance—might seem like slam dunks for the enterprise. Last week, Microsoft announced that a variety of PC makers would ship 64-bit versions of Windows XP (formerly code-named Whistler) and Windows Server 2002 with Itanium-based systems this month. Also last week, the company announced the immediate availability of its latest Office suite, Office XP, which promises to make users more productive by bubbling up functionality that has always been in the suite but has been hidden or hard to find. Both releases are worth exploring, but from what I can see, neither should change nor delay any deployment plans you already have in place.
Windows XP 64-Bit and Windows Server 2002 64-Bit
Microsoft will release Windows XP 64-bit Edition and a special version of Windows Server 2002 (awkwardly) called Windows Advanced Server Limited Edition (LE) Version 2002 this month. Both are based on prerelease code: XP 64-bit Edition is based on XP release candidate 1 (RC1), whereas Windows AS LE 2002 is based on Windows Server 2002 Beta 3—although customers will be able to get the final release of either for free when those products ship later this year. 64-bit Windows AS 2002 and Datacenter products will replace Windows AS LE 2002. Both client and server versions are being developed alongside their 32-bit brethren and include roughly the same feature set, although the XP product lacks some crucial end-user applications such as Windows Media Player (WMP), Netmeeting, CD-burning capabilities, Remote Assistance, and power management. Because these products are available only with a new Itanium workstation or server, they won't include Windows Product Activation (WPA). Frankly, that might be the best reason to buy such a system.
Microsoft and its hardware partners, however, are targeting specific markets with the 64-bit products. XP 64-bit Edition is the hardest sell, with vague solutions for scientific computing, high-end engineering, and CAD/Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM)-type work cited as its reason to exist. The server stuff is more promising because the increased headroom of the 64-bit platform will let larger databases run in RAM, and this platform makes large caching and Web servers possible.
For most customers, however, the promise of 64-bit processing is still just a promise. XP and Windows Server 2002 64-bit will offer few native applications—Microsoft plans a version of SQL Server 2000—and although 32-bit applications will run in a special Windows on Windows 64 (WOW64) environment, Microsoft doesn't recommend this for server-side services. So those who want to move to 64 bits must make sure that everything they need is there first, a technological chicken-and-egg dilemma that's not likely to be solved any time soon. And the Itanium is, by design, a product engineered for obsolescence: Its successor, code-named McKinley, isn't just on the drawing boards but slated for production by mid-2002. McKinley will offer faster clock speeds and, more importantly, better integer performance. And of course, it will benefit from a better range of tools and applications and from better compilers, which are key to the Itanium's success.
Unless you're stretching the limits of the Intel 32-bit stuff—that is, you need more than 4GB of RAM on the client or 64GB of RAM on the server, I'd give Itanium products a pass and start evaluating the 64-bit world with McKinley in mind. Besides, by that point, Microsoft will have shipped both XP 64-bit and Windows 2002 64-bit, as well as some new features for those systems.
Office XP's benefits are immediately applicable to a far wider audience. Microsoft says that more than 250 million people use Office today, and, interestingly, most of them use Office 97, not Office 2000. Whether it's because of Microsoft's lack of true competition or its understanding of the upgrade market, the company's past few Office releases have been incremental at best. And Office XP is no exception. Indeed, its two major features, Smart Tags and Task Panes, simply expose previously created features in ways that make them easier to use. In other words, Office XP has no major new features.
With more than 90 percent of the Office productivity suite market under its thumb, it's not surprising that Microsoft would field such a mild upgrade. What is surprising is that the company would market it so strongly, all the while dropping a subscription licensing edition in the United States that would have sold like gangbusters. The company says it hopes to introduce subscription licensing in the United States soon, but isn't sure whether it will be in the Office XP timeframe or for the next version, code-named Office 11. In the meantime, users must deal with Office XP's horrible Product Activation (PA) technology, which makes Windows XP's similar technology look like a walk in the park. Office XP is far stricter about PA than Windows XP is, and it will be interesting to see whether any horror stories result. Stay tuned.
So, should you upgrade to Office XP? For most corporate users, I see few compelling reasons to do so, with a caveat that I'll discuss next week. And Office XP is startlingly expensive. In fact, I don't understand why Corel doesn't seize the day and price its WordPerfect Office suite at $50 to $100 and market the heck out of it. Besides, most people obtain Office and Windows with a new PC, and with a new generation of powerful machines based on Windows XP due this fall, I recommend holding off until the next PC purchase to get both simultaneously. An exception is Outlook 2002, which is available for free to Exchange Server 2000 deployments: If security is a concern, you'll want to evaluate this free upgrade. But for the overall Office XP suite, I'd hold off on corporate deployments until the new PCs start coming in: All modern versions of Office interoperate just fine, and most users wouldn't know the difference anyway.
Next week, I'd like to discuss Microsoft's plans to strong-arm the enterprise into adopting Office XP as soon as possible. Given the reaction of Windows 2000 Magazine UPDATE readers to Windows product Activation (WPA), I suspect many of you won't be pleased.