When questioned on whether Windows 2000 users should upgrade, John Gray, Microsoft's group programme manager for Windows XP, takes a more conservative line than the normal Microsoft banter.
"Users cannot go wrong with either Windows 2000 or Windows XP," he says. "If they are in the process of rolling out Windows 2000, continue [the rollout]."
For people still evaluating Windows 2000, Gray's advice is to start looking at Windows XP. He said it is entirely possible to switch mid-way through a rollout from Windows 2000 to XP.
The most likely scenario Microsoft envisages within corporate IT is the preloading of XP on new PCs. "For new machines XP works very well within an existing Windows 2000 environment," Gray explains.
An issue many IT staff could face with the new operating system is whether to expend resources installing it, or simply apply the latest service pack to Windows 2000.
"Windows XP has better power management, fixes and enhancements. But all the critical patches are available in Windows 2000 Service Pack 2," says Gray, stressing that "rolling out a service pack is not as extreme as rolling out a new operating system".
Protection against viruses
Many experts view XP as a so-called point release of Windows 2000 - many of the flaws in the original should have been ironed out in XP. But in the light of recent security attacks on Windows-based systems, Simon Moores, chairman of the Microsoft Forums user group, is not convinced. "I doubt that XP will offer better protection against viruses," he says.
From Moores own experience, one area of security concern within XP is MS Passport, the login Microsoft provides for users of its Instant Messenger service. "XP repeatedly requests the user's e-mail address and password to create a Passport-commerce account," he says.
Worryingly, Moores also found that users risk being spammed by subscribing to Passport on an XP-based PC. "The Passport agreement, which you accept when you click OK," says Moores, "permits Microsoft and its partners to send you an unlimited number of commercial e-mail messages."
In addition Moores says users cannot rescind Microsoft's permission to use their e-mail address. They must unsubscribe from every partner's e-mail list individually.
"I'm sure that many users would be just as happy with Windows 2000, but XP's attractive consumer features will probably make it irresistible to many," said Moores.
However, the upgrade could cause problems for the unsuspecting user. Despite Microsoft's claims that the new operating system includes the latest drivers and patches, Moores feels it fares particularly badly in its support for Java.
"Instead of including the latest version of Java support, as the recent Sun-Microsoft lawsuit settlement would suggest, XP will default to a four-year-old version. Users can get a new Java download, but its 5Mb size will discourage many," he says.
In a paper entitled Windows XP: Corporate benefits, Giga Information Group analyst Rob Enderle says XP works better on current hardware than previous Microsoft operating systems.
Because of the significant number of changes to hardware during the next 18 months, Giga identified one feature of XP as potentially "critical to companies undertaking large or ongoing hardware deployments".
Enderle says that unlike previous versions of Windows, which generally required driver support from the hardware suppliers as part of the installation process, XP checks on the network for updated drivers. He says this process provides one more check to make sure the hardware and related drivers are correct, and thus delivers a far better software upgrade experience.
Enderle notes that this feature should have a positive impact on hard-disk imaging, a procedure used during large-scale deployments to load the operating system rapidly on to many machines.
"XP appears to handle massive changes in hardware much better than 2000 did," says Enderle, adding that Windows 9x products are not even in the same league. To test this, he took hard drives out of one AMD-based machine and connected them to a new Pentium 4 machine. This procedure effectively "installed" XP on to the P4-based PC, but the hardware drivers required to make the operating system work properly on this new PC came from the old AMD hardware.
"With a couple of reboots - and the use of the Windows and Office XP disks for authentication - we had the new machines up and running in a matter of minutes with full functionality." This, Enderle concludes, suggests that a single operating system image should cover a vast array of hardware, simplifying both image management and support requirements.
The new operating system clearly offers improvements over Windows 2000, but any upgrade should be balanced against the needs of the business. Many of the features are aimed at home users, but there is a place in corporate IT for XP, particularly in terms of simpler deployment and hardware support.