Downside of Microsoft's new OS is the cost to users

First published in Business in Vancouver, October 23, 2001 Issue #626: The high-tech office column

by ALAN ZISMAN (c) 2001

Last week, we looked at Microsoft's newest operating system, Windows XP. It combines the robustness of Windows 2000 with most of the compatibility of Windows 98. The new, more colourful user interface is also, in many ways, easier to use.

So what's not to like?

 Only last year, Microsoft released Windows 2000 aimed at business users and Windows ME aimed at consumers. Windows XP may be too much too soon.

 It's designed for new hardware. Think lots of RAM and lots of drive space, a fast processor and preferably a big monitor. It may run on some older systems, but it really wants a computer designed in the last year or two to be at its best. (Hardware vendors are hoping that Windows XP sales will help kickstart lagging PC sales.)

 It focuses on the PC as the centre of a digital lifestyle, with lots of built-in support for digital cameras, music downloads and watching movies. Home users may like these features, but do we want it to make it easier to watch DVD movies or download music at work?

 Ease-of-use functions require users to do things Microsoft's way. In some cases, this may be a minor irritant: I don't want to store my saved work in the "My documents" folder, for example, or my photos in "My pictures," thank you. In other cases, users are, by default, pointed to Microsoft or Microsoft-approved businesses.

 When I open a folder full of photos, the list of options on the left includes useful functions such as viewing a slide show, making the photo the desktop wallpaper or renaming the file. Other options, such as to "Order prints online," while handy, direct me to a limited number of businesses.

 Windows XP really encourages users to get a Hotmail account and to register for a Microsoft Passport, providing personal information to Microsoft and selected online merchants. Competitors get no such free ride. Users don't have to sign on to either service, but to get online tech support from Microsoft, they will need a Passport account.

 Like Office XP (and, according to Microsoft, all the rest of the company's applications by early next year), Windows XP uses product activation. Designed to limit casual software piracy, this generates a code number at installation based on the computer's hardware. This code has to be sent into Microsoft, either automatically via the Internet or by phone in order to use Windows XP. (Corporate customers are exempt.) Many home users and smaller businesses have routinely "bent" the software licensing agreement, using a single copy of Windows on more than one computer. No more. (Note that Windows Product Activation does not automatically send Microsoft personal information.)

The result is a decidedly mixed blessing. Assuming you are trying to run it on a fairly new, fairly powerful computer and don't need to use exotic hardware add-ons or software, Windows XP performs as advertised: it's more stable, faster and easier to use than Windows 98 or ME.

If you've got computers that are more than two years old, however, upgrading to this operating system is probably more trouble than benefit. It will probably show up on the next computers you purchase, anyway.

And for businesses with a mix of hardware and a mix of Windows versions, in the short term it just adds another complication that, with a look and feel that's quite different from previous versions of Windows, will make technical support and staff training more complex.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan