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Windows XP succeeds Windows 2000 Professional as the latest desktop operating system in the Windows 2000 family. With its radically restyled look and feel, XP certainly looks very different from its predecessor. But systems integrators and their enterprise clients will be asking hard questions about how different it really is - and whether the changes are worth paying for.
XP is available in three editions: XP Professional for enterprises; XP 64-bit edition for high-performance workstations; and XP Home Edition, which lacks the remote support and extra security of the enterprise version. All three are completely compatible with the Windows 2000 code base.
According to Neil Laver, Microsoft UK product market manager for Windows XP, the product's improved applications' compatibility is an important reason why systems integrators and their clients will be interested in it.
"A lot of enterprise clients couldn't move to Windows 2000 because of compatibility issues," he says. "XP represents a massive improvement in terms of compatibility. Eighty percent of applications that wouldn't run on 2000 will run on XP out of the box, and most of the other 20% will run in compatibility mode. The few that won't will probably work if an IT professional uses the resource kit available with Windows XP to make minor changes," Laver adds. XP's increased reliability and support for mobile workers will also, Laver believes, be key selling points.
In the real world, companies often upgrade for fairly mundane reasons, and many integrators are expecting to see their clients moving to XP simply because it's time for a change. "I don't think there's enough new features in XP to justify upgrading from 2000; it comes down to a timing issue," says Martin Doxsey, principal consultant at ICL. "It's around three years after many corporates did their Year 2000 upgrades, and they're getting ready to update their desktop hardware. Rather than adopting Windows 2000 on the desktop immediately, some companies will have been waiting for the initial bugs to be ironed out in Version 2."
The new look
A new simplified look and feel is the most obvious change in XP. For enterprise customers, integrators believe that this will be either a non-issue or a negative issue, and more often than not the XP interface will be switched off. "The different look is for the consumer market," says Doxsey.
"In the corporate market, customers don't want to have to retrain and have their helpdesk flooded with calls from all the people who can't find buttons any more. My guess is most corporates that implement XP will make it look just like Windows 2000."
Desktop operating systems have major implications for cost of ownership, which is a perennial issue for corporates. George Thaw of systems integrator Avanade, a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture, sees the increased reliability and improved desktop applications compatibility issues as central to cutting cost of ownership.
"It will make things run more smoothly, and cut down costs in terms of testing," he says. "Having introduced large clients to Windows 2000, I believe XP will significantly reduce costs."
But like most system integrators, he's more interested in the implications for integrating the desktop with back-end systems. As with Windows 2000 Professional, XP's close compatibility with Windows 2000 servers will make a difference in terms of support costs. "Both Windows 2000 server and Windows XP are running on one kernel, so you don't need multiple sets of knowledge to support them," says Thaw.
Behind the scenes
Paul Scott, Customer Relationship Management business consultant at services company Axon, believes that desktop operating systems questions are a marginal issue for most large enterprises, where the real challenges still centre on the integration of core systems and legacy data. Axon's enterprise clients, which include BOC, BP, Carlsberg Tetley and Xerox, are more interested in issues such as how to get access to enterprise data efficiently, then present the results on the desktop in a form users want.
"Platforms like SAP, Peoplesoft and Oracle have the muscle and are increasingly getting better at using front end functionality in packages like Microsoft Office and Lotus Notes, but there is still a long way to go," Scott maintains. "However, XP provides a new way of tackling some of the workgroup and inter-enterprise integration issues."
David Wright, managing consultant at PA Consulting, agrees that for enterprise customers "the interesting issues around Windows 2000 family are at the back office, where all the money and complexity is, and that's where you have to get your decision-making right". As for XP on the desktop, he doesn't see much point in wasting time soul-searching: "You refresh your PCs fairly regularly anyway, so just do it - just go for XP now. What are the alternatives?"
Signing up to .Net
One of the few services professionals who see XP as significant for the enterprise is Andy Mulholland, chief technology officer at CAP Gemini Ernst & Young. "XP doesn't have many features that make much difference to the average user, but at the strategy level it does have quite a lot of interest," he says. "It deals with the relationships between the user, the desktop and different types of services, and has wider links into Microsoft's .Net initiative."
Companies offering online services, he believes, should be thinking now about how to benefit from the fact that their customers have new features such as a built-in Messenger client and built-in user authentication. "XP is designed to make you a client to a service world; whether someone is at home or in business, their ability to act as client to services is now uniform," he says.
On the mobile front, Windows XP simplifies wireless networking through support for the 802.11 standard, making it seamless for mobile workers to connect to corporate networks through secure wireless connections without needing to reconfigure their machines. Among many other advanced features, the Network Setup Wizard enables users to easily set up networks and create bridges.