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Windows XP -- now or later?

If you're using an older version of Windows, should you buy a new version or wait?

TECHTARGET: The Information Architect
Builders of the 21st Century IT Infrastructure

Windows XP -- now or later?
Well, it depends. If you're using an older version of Windows, buying now could offer financial benefits. If you're using Windows 2000, there's no hurry.

By Johanna Ambrosio

For companies that are still using older Microsoft operating systems -- Windows NT or any of the 9x versions -- moving to Windows XP as soon as possible makes a great deal of sense. For those already using Windows 2000, XP is the next logical move for whenever you normally would be ready to upgrade; there's no rush.

Besides considering what systems you've already got in-house, finances play a big part in this. Microsoft has changed many of its volume software licensing agreements. So it will be significantly less expensive for NT users, for instance, to buy XP now -- even if you're not going to install it right away -- rather than wait a year or longer to do so.

"The new policy requires users to upgrade within a few months of the release of the product, or they'll have to pay a full price," says Dan Kusnetzsky, vice president of system software research at IDC in Framingham, Mass. "Many companies will look at paying an upgrade price now, versus the full purchase price later, and decide to do it now."

Most industry analysts are viewing XP as a "dot-release" of Windows 2000 and say there's no overwhelming reason to move to it if you're already on Windows 2000. The two operating systems are based on the same kernel, and although XP has some nice features, it would be difficult to cost-justify a massive move from one to the other right now.

Another thing to keep in mind is that with new machines you now have the right to "downgrade for free," says Mark Silver, an analyst at the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn. In other words, you can buy a new XP machine and ask for it to also be loaded with NT 4.0, Windows 98 or another older operating system.

One reason to go with XP sooner rather than later, Silver says, is because Microsoft has promised to support operating systems for three years after their release. If you buy or upgrade to Windows 2000 now, it might be more difficult to get fixes and patches for your machines after 2003.

Windows XP is set to ship on October 25, according to Microsoft. Originally targeted solely for the consumer market, Microsoft has shifted gears and is now providing personal and professional versions of XP for use at home and in the office. Server versions will likely ship next year.

New features
Among the key new features of XP for enterprises are remote-control support, so IT staffers can diagnose and fix a user's machine from afar. There are also things like being able to burn a CD as well as other multimedia support for things like digital photos and better support for wireless computers. A personal firewall also comes as a standard part of XP.

Another new set of features address installation, says Ken Smiley, senior analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "XP checks for newer drivers, even out on the Internet, to make sure everything's correct. If you need a patch or update, XP goes out and finds it during the install so that you don't have to go back to the machine," he explains.

Tom Manter, research director for Windows at the Aberdeen Group in Boston, says the greatest advantage of XP is better reliability than older operating systems like NT or Windows 98. It crashes less often. Still, he adds, "IT managers already running Windows 2000 won't migrate because they don't see the value proposition. The features and functions in XP are not different enough from Windows 2000 to justify spending money."

If you do decide to jump, however, keep in mind that older machines will almost certainly need a faster processor, more memory and a larger hard drive to run XP. Also, remember that older software -- written for Windows 9x operating systems -- may not run on XP, IDC's Kusnetzsky warns. So you'll likely have to upgrade your applications or replace them if they're old enough.

Similarly, it's "pretty clear that devices that are unusual or obscure may not have device drivers" that work under XP, Kusnetzsky adds. "Organizations will have to abandon those devices," which may include a SCSI drive or tape backup device, "no matter how important they are to the organization."

Privacy issues
Something else to keep in mind: there's been a lot of ink about the privacy ramifications of the activation and registration functions of XP. Here's how they differ: Activation basically ties a specific copy of the operating system to a specific machine, to cut down on piracy. It does not ask for any personal information, analysts say, but it is required to use the computer.

Large companies with Enterprise Select accounts will not have to cope with activation, because Microsoft will take care of this for them, and medium enterprises that buy PCs in bulk won't have to worry about it, either. Their distributors will deal with it.

With smaller purchases, however, and certainly for consumers buying off-the-shelf systems in their local computer stores, activation is something to consider. And if you change five or six hardware portions of your PC at one time -- swapping disk drives or video cards, for example -- you'll need to reactivate.

On the other hand, registration most certainly does ask for personal information. But it is not required to use the PC; it's optional. You can activate and not register, and XP will still work just fine.

Ambrosio is a freelance writer in Marlborough, Mass. Reach her at

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