The arrival of any new operating system is generally greeted with caution and worry, or at least it should be going on past experience in the computer industry. Change generally brings with it an element of pain.
With the launch of its latest operating system Windows XP, Microsoft is offering yet more change and more new technologies to understand. So do users want this change?
When this question was levelled at Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer at an event in the UK this year, he looked bewildered, paused for breath, then said: "Of course you do."
He did, however, have more thought-provoking comments to make on Windows XP, prompted by questions from the likes of John Parker of The Infrastructure Forum, whose members are drawn from companies listed on the FTSE 100. Parker told Ballmer that one of the key issues for the forum's members is that they seem to be investing in Microsoft technology that becomes out-dated rather quickly as software like Windows XP comes along.
Also a cause for concern was the belief that as software appears with problems in it, users have to wait until the next release for a fix.
"If there are bugs in our products we will fix them," responded Ballmer. "And if you have any member who doesn't think we are fixing bugs and has software that doesn't do what we say it does, then I'm firstname.lastname@example.org."
He added: "In terms of churn. Our job is to put new capabilities into the market that are of value to our customers. And if all customers wanted to implement new technologies at exactly the same rate - that rate being one year, two years and so on - it would be fine. But every user is at a different phase and what is good timing for one company is lousy for another."
When asked a similar question by Computer Weekly, Ballmer's answer was somewhat more direct. "So you want me to stand still? We're in the market of developing new technologies and that means we have to launch new software," he said.
So what does Windows XP provide that users need? This is the latest generation of 32-bit operating systems from Microsoft that spans the desktop to the server. There is also a 64-bit version that will run with Intel's Itanium 64-bit processor. Different flavours of the 32-bit software will serve consumer users, business desktop users, users connected to servers, line of business applications that run entire companies and users of powerful workstations.
In many respects this complete family of operating systems replaces the Windows 2000 set of operating systems, except for the high-end Windows 2000 Datacenter Server. Without a shadow of a doubt this launch sounds the death knell for Windows 95 and 98 and the ill-fated Windows Millennium.
Furthermore, the code base of all the Windows XP operating systems has been synchronised. The troubled 9.x code base - as in 95, 98 - has been sent to join Dos on the scrapheap. This means that the difference between the Home and Professional versions of XP is negligible, the home edition is basically the business one with several features crippled.
Now having said all of this, it is worth mentioning that more upgrades of Windows XP are already being planned for next year and beyond. So if you are considering any purchase of this technology you should make sure you understand Microsoft's future roll-out plans - some of which are available while others are veiled in secrecy - and carry out a lengthy technology evaluation.
Looking at Microsoft's product roll-out over the next few years it is clear that one of the few constants is change. For the average IT department such change comes at a cost, both financially and in terms of staff.
Of you take nothing else away from this article please remember this: Windows XP is a force to be reckoned with in the enterprise, on the desktop and on the server. It is far more than a consumer toy and, as such, will play a major role in business processing next year and beyond.
If there is money in the budget to upgrade and your staff have the training to manage the change of platform, the only major issue is Microsoft's product road-map. This is needs to be monitored closely as several variants of XP are on the way, each bringing new technologies which are integral to the evolution of Microsoft's .net platform and, therefore, central to any online world that Microsoft will promote in the future.
Microsoft has bet its future on XML as the method of blowing open the issue of data portability and application interoperability. As a result any company that buys into Microsoft's vision of the future must buy into XML.
The knock-on effect is that software like Windows XP - on the desktop and server - will act as the foundation layer for XML and therefore will become the standard organisations around the world will have to accept.
As stated - change is constant. And that will not change.
Windows XP at a glance
- Much easier networking that is as close to plug and play as it gets
- An improved help system
- A much better user interface - called Luna - which is very intuitive
- Easier set-up, configuration and management with new wizards that make complex tasks simple
- Faster performance
- A baseline start for bringing XML to the desktop - but will be improved upon next year with updates to XP
- The arrival of mainstream 64-bit Intel-based desktop computing.
Is 64-bit double the trouble?
Windows XP is the operating system that takes Microsoft into the 64-bit arena, albeit several years after it dabbled with Windows NT on the Digital Alpha
64-bit processor. Computer-aided design and scientific modelling will be possible on workstations running Windows XP. On the server 64-bit computing means more performance and staggeringly improved memory bandwidth that will enable new breeds of enterprise applications to operate in Microsoft computer platforms.
This operating system will work hand in hand with Intel's Itanium processor and the next processors that appear in this product family. In response to early customer demands, Microsoft has made a pre-release edition of 64-bit Windows XP, called Windows Advanced Server Limited Edition, for 64-bit Itanium servers.
Analyst firm Gartner said enterprises should exercise caution when using this software - what Gartner calls a "very public beta test" - despite the fact that Microsoft offers full support for Limited Edition and will provide an upgrade path to the full edition when it appears.
Microsoft introduced the Limited Edition to get a 64-bit variant of Windows out when Itanium systems started to become available. This release will be followed by the 64-bit Professional edition (available from 25 October) and the 64-bit Datacenter Server version, expected in mid-2002.
The dominant architecture will remain 32-bit possibly into 2006 - although this is a subject for debate - because of the relatively high cost of Itanium systems and the requirements for commercial software. But 64-bit will grow as a proportion of enterprise servers over time, driven by the declining costs of hardware.
Gartner still warns enterprises to exercise caution in deploying 64-bit Windows until the following things happen:
- It no longer appears as a limited edition
- Key applications have been changed to exploit 64-bit computing. (Applications running in 32-bit mode on Itanium systems will suffer a performance penalty.)
- Sufficient reference sites for critical applications become available.
XP - the bigger picture
Microsoft set the developers who created Windows XP the challenge of substantially improving on Windows 2000's performance. This was a double-edged sword: XP had to run faster than 2000 to be more alluring to customers; but, more importantly, the core engine inside the operating system had to run faster to accommodate XP's new features.
To do this the Windows XP performance engineers classified each new feature, such as shaded icons and the Windows Media Player, as performance costs that had to be dealt with. The idea was that each improvement had an associated cost in terms of performance, which meant it stayed or was dropped in the final version.
One area that survived was speed of boot time and power management, where engineers came up with Fast Boot and Steady State performance. Windows XP now handles the computations that determine the power state of a system in parallel rather than serially. The effect should be a noticeable decrease in boot times, especially from a computer in standby mode.
Microsoft has also changed the way it handles applications. The operating system now constantly monitors application usage, and it moves the appropriate application files and data files around on the disc to optimise the performance of the most-used applications. The result can be a 50% increase in application loads on the most-used applications.
Fast Boot and automatic application tuning are timely enhancements, but Microsoft spokespeople say the biggest performance gains come from disc I/O improvements. Many of the improvements with application launching and Fast Boot are based on better disc I/O.
One of the more notable boosts comes from pre-fetching - a technology that's common in microprocessors. As Windows and applications load, XP begins the pre-fetch process. Necessary files are loaded into memory at the same time as other devices are being initiated.
It appears from initial testing that Microsoft has managed to balance the performance of the operating system against the new features it has added.
One of the most visible enhancements Windows XP provides comes from support for Microsoft's Cleartype text display technology. Cleartype triples the horizontal resolution of text rendered on LCD monitors, delivering a noticeable improvement in readability.
The ability of the software working within a wireless network is superb, greatly reducing the burden of the wireless network interface card (NIC) configuration for mobile users accessing the corporate network via 802.11b standard. In most cases you can expect a set-up time of less than five minutes for connecting a notebook PC, fitted with a wireless NIC, into a 802/11b network.
Mobile users will also be thankful for some of the performance gains Windows XP delivers including the faster boot times with Windows XP over Windows 2000, especially when restarting from Standby and Hibernate modes.
As for the management of mobile machines, two new features in Windows XP take advantage of Windows Terminal Service technology to grant users control of remote XP machines. The Remote Assistance utility lets users request assistance from another XP user via e-mail or Windows Messenger and allows that user to take control of a remote machine to make the required changes or otherwise provide support.
This will be especially useful for IT administrators responsible for supporting users in disparate locations. Similarly, the Remote Desktop feature provides remote users with full access to their XP desktops via another XP machine or a Windows Terminal Service client.
One thing to bear in mind, however, is that such features could pose potential security risks and as a result administrators should be selective about who can and can't use them.
The new operating system has an application compatibility facility that allows users to run applications designed for Windows 95, Windows 98, NT 4.0 or 2000. That said, any non-XP software that relies on specific drivers or low-level operating system components - such as disc partitioning utilities and anti-virus programs - will require new drivers or software updates to work with Windows XP.
The design of the new Windows XP interface, dubbed Luna, emphasises simplicity. Elements of the operating system are organised into intuitive groups on the control panel and the task bar. However, users already familiar with the Windows 2000 Start menu may choose to revert to that version, and this can be managed centrally by administrators via the group policy interface.
Windows XP is a compelling reason to migrate for any organisation still running Windows 9.x on the desktop. The new operating system delivers all the stability and manageability benefits of Windows 2000 with fewer of the device and software incompatibility issues that marred Windows 2000 when it first came out.
Retail copies of Windows XP will include an anti-piracy feature called Windows Product Activation (WPA). Although copies of XP bought on volume licences will not include WPA, it is possible that enterprise IT departments will encounter WPA in some of the machines under their care.
At installation, WPA generates a unique string derived from XP's product ID, combined with identification data from the components of the machine on which XP is running. Following installation users must activate XP within 30 days by transmitting that string to Microsoft. Users receive in return an ID that tells XP it has been activated.
However, if the user changes more than six components in his system, XP no longer recognises the machine as the one on which it was installed and requires reactivation within another 30 days. WPA does not appear to involve the transmission of personal data and does not involve any further communication between a desktop and Microsoft.