Users ponder the move to Windows XP

As Windows XP Professional begins to hit the streets, virtually no one is expecting a mad rush of buying from IT executives.

But that’s not to say that there aren’t companies poised to make the leap to XP. Where an organization stands on the matter is often a function of where it stands on the Windows evolutionary chart.

Those that have deployed or are deploying Windows 2000 are not likely to be interested in what some are calling the incremental improvements of XP, according to IT executives and analysts.

“XP is a version upgrade, not a full upgrade,” said Michael Sherwood, director of IT for the city of Oceanside, Calif. Three weeks ago, Sherwood completed his desktop upgrade to Win 2000 and has no interest in XP. “If Windows 2000 is a 5.0 version, then XP is 5.1.”

Others on older operating systems may find XP’s purported reliability a blessing over Windows 95, 98 and NT. That’s because they can bypass Win 2000 and go directly to XP.

“We want to skip Windows 2000,” said Jeff Allred, manager of network services for the Duke University Cancer Center in Durham, N.C. “With a limited staff, I’m looking at it as a labour-saving move.” Allred also said his testing has shown XP to be more stable than Win 2000.

But the biggest factor that may garner corporate attention is the licensing options with XP. When a company licenses an XP desktop, it can use that license to run Win 2000, what Microsoft calls “downgrading” the license. The same license could be used later to run XP. The ability to downgrade the license means users get one license to cover two versions instead of having to buy an upgrade in the future. That alone may make those migrating to Win 2000 buy XP licenses since they can be used to deploy Win 2000 and XP.

Market research firm International Data Corp. predicts more than a third of all new Windows client operating system licenses sold in 2002 will be for XP Professional, but many of those may not be used to run XP.

“It’s crazy not to buy XP Pro when you can downgrade the license,” said Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC. “The best strategy is to buy the XP license and deploy Windows 2000.”

Oceanside’s Sherwood is doing just that.

“We have a mandate that all new machines will be bought with XP, but we are not deploying that software yet,” he said. But Sherwood said he will have the software and the hardware to run it when he is ready to migrate off Win 2000 in 12 to 18 months. But for those still on older operating systems, the question is whether they use XP to upgrade those older desktops.

“The analysis we have done shows XP is fundamentally a better product than those old systems,” said Cheryl Currid, president of research firm Currid & Company. “It’s more stable, and with features like remote support it will lessen the volume of support calls.”

Currid said corporations have been clamouring for XP features such as Remote Assistant, which lets help desk personnel remotely take over a desktop, support of 802.11 wireless and collaboration tools such as instant messaging.

Vendors such as Siemens are also integrating XP into advanced systems such as voice over IP. Siemens is using the Session Initiation Protocol support in XP to integrate the operating system with its optiPoint phones and HiPath communications platform.

But some advanced features will require other technology decisions. As part of its integration package, Siemens relies on Windows.Net Server, which won’t ship until next year. And instant messaging requires a Microsoft Passport account from MSN or Exchange 2000.

However, a bright spot is that XP has better backward compatibility with older Windows 9.X and NT applications than Win 2000.

“We have 90 per cent compatibility with NT and 9.X applications built in the past three years,” said Charmaine Gravning, product manager for XP.

Even with backward compatibility, users may still delay any migration decisions to test applications.

“We have a lot of applications and we thoroughly test them with any new [OS],” said Rick Jones, desktop analyst for Albertsons, a supermarket chain with headquarters in Boise, Idaho that is predominantly a Novell shop. “It will be some time before we move to 2000 or XP.”

The decision to abandon older operating systems may also hinge on the fact that Microsoft is also abandoning them. Volume licensing of Windows 95 and 98 ended in July, and NT 4.0 ends next June. Support services for Windows 95 and NT 3.5 ends in December. Windows 98 and NT support disappears June 30, 2003.

Even with those deadlines, there are questions about whether XP will fit into tightening corporate budgets. The answer will hinge on how much hardware needs to be upgraded and on software licensing details, especially under Microsoft’s new upgrade program called Software Assurance.

A machine running Windows 95, 98, NT and even 2000 won’t meet the requirements for XP. The minimum configuration is a 300-MHz or higher processor, 128M bytes of RAM and 1.5GB of available hard disk space. Research firm Gartner Inc. said earlier this year that it costs US$230 to US$500 or more for labour and licensing to upgrade a desktop to Win 2000, not including hardware. The cost for XP is likely to be more, especially if a company opts for upgrade protection under Software Assurance.

If all those options don’t jibe with a corporation’s plans, there is always the thin-client route. Wyse, which makes thin client terminals, will release in January its Winterm terminal with embedded XP, which will ship in November.

“Everything in XP can be broken into modules and built into XP embedded,” said David Rand, director of field marketing for Wyse. “You can get a customer image of XP scaled down to the features you need.”