To XP or not to XP?

Microsoft is readying its next operating system for the shelves. It may be the latest, but is it the greatest? Danny Bradbury...

Microsoft is readying its next operating system for the shelves. It may be the latest, but is it the greatest? Danny Bradbury looks inside the box

What is Windows XP?
Windows XP is the latest version of the Microsoft operating system. It's going to ship in both Home and Professional editions for desktop PCs in October, with a server version later next year. The server version is codenamed Microsoft .Net Server - only client products carry the XP moniker.

Another upgrade, already?
Of course. Microsoft operating systems are like London buses - there's always another one just around the corner. Also, much like London buses, previous versions of Windows aimed at home users and based on the old DOS operating system tended to be a bit slow, and break down a lot. The latest version of the operating system, due to ship in October, will hopefully change that because both the Home and the Professional editions are based on the Windows 2000 kernel, which is much more stable than the old Windows 9x kernel. In short, if you were using Windows 98 before, your PC won't crash as much.

What new features will be relevant to me?
The main new feature that will be relevant to e-commerce providers is the ability for the operating system to connect with .Net services. Microsoft's overriding strategy is .Net and the company is betting its entire future on it. Essentially, Web services enable you to access facilities over the Internet as if they were on your desktop, so you can do things like save files to Internet sites, store and manipulate photographs online using software located on a server, and manage your calendar remotely.

How does Windows XP hook into .Net?
Specifically, it enables you to sign into Passport, which is Microsoft's single sign-on security system, at log-on. You can sign on to Passport manually through a Web browser using other operating systems, but because Passport is the entryway to all .Net-enabled services, doing it when you first log on to Windows makes the whole thing easier. Microsoft will be folding in-house and third party .Net services developed under its Hailstorm programme into its Passport service in the next 18 months. Smart companies will develop chargeable services accessible online in this way.

Anything else I need to know?
Another thing which is going to be big is the Windows Messenger program. Previously, Microsoft's instant messaging program (MSN Messenger) and its video conferencing system (Netmeeting) have been separate, and executives admit that Netmeeting was difficult to use. The new system folds them into one client that you can use to access your contacts and speak to them in a video session. This provides interesting opportunities for e-commerce players, who may finally be able to offer easy-to-use video links with their customers.

In the long term, Microsoft is working on back-end software that can be used to message its clients automatically, based on certain events taking place. If your database shows that a product ordered by a customer has arrived, for example, it could be programmed to message them automatically. Few people have caught onto this yet, but in 18 months or so, more companies will be actively exploring it.

I hear that you can only install it on one machine, so you can't upgrade your PC and install it again.

This isn't entirely true. There is an activation feature designed to stop people casually copying the software. It works by taking a snapshot of some of the key hardware characteristics of your machine when it is installed. When you start to use the system, you have to activate it by connecting to a central site, which keeps a record of your system configuration. If any future attempt is made to activate it from a substantially different machine, the customer must call the activation centre to get a new code.

How will my skills base be affected if I move to .Net server?
Microsoft has started introducing exams in its Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) course aimed specifically at XP and will likely introduce more in the future. For now, it says that IT professionals can continue to study for Windows 2000-based certification, because XP is based on this technology. Nevertheless, XP certification gives professionals more kudos, and it seems likely that the emphasis will eventually switch to Windows XP/.Net Server certification. You'll need to make the transition at some stage if you upgrade.

What about smart tags?
This feature in Internet Explorer 6 (the default browser with XP) intercepted key words on websites and modified them to display its own hyperlinks to relevant websites. Some content providers objected to this, seeing it as a means of hijacking their websites. It was removed, and while Microsoft executives say they would like to re-introduce it at some point if the objections can be overcome, it isn't likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

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