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Are you XPerienced?

A couple of months ago I was talking to our office network manager about buying a new PC for a member of my family.

The question was did I buy it then or wait until Windows XP was released. His immediate reaction was: “Why would you want to buy a PC with an unproven operating system?”

Although the point was made tongue in cheek, it is true that an increasing number of organisations have adopted a policy of always waiting until the first “service pack” release of any Microsoft product is released before upgrading to new versions. Service packs are generally the fixes for all the things that do not quite work properly.

Last week saw the release of Windows XP, the operating system that for the first time in nearly a decade unifies the main versions of Windows under a single product.

For most of the last 10 years users have had the choice of buying versions of either Windows NT, versions 3.5, 4.0 or 2000 (which is really NT5.0) or one of the 9.x series (95, 98, 98SE or ME). The former was designed as very much a business system, the latter a more consumer-friendly product with lower levels of security and, it has to be said, reliability.

Windows eXPerience (the full name for XP) aims to unite the two systems under a single banner but with different versions for domestic and commercial users.

The events of September 11 have led to Microsoft taking a slightly more low-key approach to the launch of its new product.

However, with a global marketing budget said to be more than $1bn, there can be little doubt that the latest version of the world&#39s most used operating system will become increasingly difficult to ignore over the next few months.

The question remains, is it worth the investment to move to it now or to wait and see?

As with its Office suite, the challenge facing Microsoft is that, with each version of its products being more feature-rich and robust, can businesses justify the additional expenditure for the latest versions of its products?

Upgrading the software itself is going to cost you around £150 per copy but it is important not to forget the additional costs of familiarisation, training and installation.

After all, if it ain&#39t broke, why fix it? I certainly had this view when I first installed Office XP a few months ago.

To be fair, having got used to working with the new Office suite I am sufficiently convinced to roll it out across all our office computers.

This was reinforced when I found myself working on a machine which only had Office 2000 installed and really missed some of the additional functions I had got used to in Office XP.

It must be said that there are many businesses still happily working with Office 97 but I suspect they are probably missing out on the chance of significant improvements in productivity by doing so.

The new operating system, however, may pose a more difficult decision. Not least because there are some fairly significant changes to the Windows interface.

Office XP is basically a suite of software packages with very useful features thrown in. Windows XP has a very new look and feel.

Yes, you can switch back to what they call the classic interface but even then initial navigation changes considerably.

No longer do you get a list of the basic tasks you will carry out as soon as you hit the Windows key. Now the majority of the start menu is offering you a list of other Microsoft products, Movie Maker, MSN Explorer and Windows Media Player.

This might be fine when using a computer at home for leisure but when I am in the office what I want to see is the files I need to work with – not a lot of other clutter that gets in the way and areas like My Music and My Pictures.

On the other hand, some of the new features are good. At last, the start button is joined by a “turn off computer” icon, even though you do have to press start to get to it.

The new product also allows for snapshots of system set-ups to be taken so machines can be quickly reverted to previous settings if software is installed that creates conflicts. Using a rollback system, previous settings can be restored in minutes.

Another feature I would expect to be popular is the remote desktop. This is only available in the Professional version of XP but will allow users to access their own computers set up over another workstation on a network or via the internet.

This will also allow external technical support services to take control of your system to examine problems. As few IFA businesses will have their own full-time, in-house support, this should make it easier to use external support.

There are some features that I am sure will have significant attractions. For example, far closer control of individual accounts is now included.

Many IFAs have a computer at home for occasional work and other members of the family use these for different purposes. XP offers far better user management, giving each user their own account so when you log on you can see all the files you last used in the recent document list rather than your children&#39s homework.

A controversial aspect of XP is going to be the Windows Product Activation. In an understandable attempt to cut down on piracy, Micro-soft has introduced a system that ties your software far more into the system you install it on.

Having put the software on the machine, you have 30 days to log on to Microsoft and let the operating system send a code, generated by the serial numbers of various items on your machine. This is not an attempt by Microsoft to capture information about users but to make sure people do not buy one copy of the software and install it on multiple machines.

You are only allowed to reinstall software on the same machine a certain number of times before you have to get a special code from Microsoft.

In practice, I suspect, this will drive anyone with more than two or three PCs towards corporate licensing agreements where you do not have such a restriction but have to provide details of how many machines you have software installed on.

Upgrading to Windows XP is simple enough. We did not get the software until late on Thursday afternoon and it was up and running by 6pm.

This was using a Sony PCG N505SN with a Pentium PII processor and 128Mb memory – little more than the minimum recommended specification.

Despite his cynicism, I could not help but be amused by the fact that, when ordering a new PC last week, our network manager was very keen that we should order one with XP installed rather than take the safe option and stick to Windows 2000.

I will be testing Windows XP over a small number of machines in the next couple of months to get a better understanding of the value of the extra tools before deploying it across the business.

Ian McKenna is a consultant and director of the Financial Technology Research Centre, which works for a wide range of industry organisations, life offices and technology companies, including Microsoft, Assuresoft and The Exchange. He can be contacted by email at ianm@financialtechnology.net

Tel: 020 7935 2599

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