Windows 2000: Coming Soon to a Hard Drive Near You?
How to decide if you need Microsoft's next operating system upgrade
Does your business need the Next Big Thing? With technology, it can
be hard to know. This month, Microsoft unleashed its Office 2000 suite,
which got less-than-glowing reviews for features that were supposed to
be friendly to small business.
(See "Office Lite: Less Would Be More,"
Business Week, June 14, 1999
and "Office 2000: Too Much Renovation,"
Business Week, June 7, 1999.) Late this year, Microsoft's next Next Big Thing --
its Windows 2000 Professional operating system -- is scheduled to hit the
stores. It's a safe bet that Microsoft's marketing juggernaut will try
to persuade small businesses to adopt it, so it's worth thinking now about
whether you need to.
Given Microsoft's dominance, for most small businesses switching means
upgrading from a previous Windows incarnation. The company recently released
a complete test version for anybody who wants to try it. We installed it
on a typical PC with a 300 MHz processor and 64 MB of RAM.
Windows 2000 will replace Windows NT 4, mainly a business product. Microsoft
also promises to keep Windows 98, which many businesses also use, alive
Microsoft claims that installing the new system on individual computers
is easy, which our test confirmed. It took about an hour to replace Windows
98. Windows 2000 Professional automatically adopted the old system's settings,
such as those for our printer and monitor.
Microsoft also claims that Windows 2000 Professional will be easier
to use. We found little to argue with there -- but it's hardly a day-and-night
improvement. Overall, the upgrade looks and acts largely like Windows 98.
If you are comfortable there, you won't have any difficulty switching over.
A plus: Windows 2000 has many more wizards to help with maintenance tasks
than its precursor. Wizards are dialog boxes that walk you through
complex processes. We used them, for instance, to connect a new printer
to our system. In addition, the new version supports data encryption, which
scrambles your data and protects it with a password so others can't read
Most businesses would love to see an operating system with fewer crashes.
Microsoft claims that Windows 2000 will be more stable than previous
versions. But that's almost impossible to ascertain. It was crash-free
during the week we tested it, but it takes months of use to assess stability.
That's one reason skeptics say it doesn't pay to be the first on your block
with Windows 2000. New operating systems are buggy. So unless you like
being a guinea pig, wait till the system has been around a while and Microsoft
has issued patches or other fixes.
That's why David Hirsch, CEO of Gaspra Technologies, who helps small
businesses set up their systems, is adamant that his clients should wait
-- though he's a fan of Microsoft products, and he makes his living upgrading
operating systems. "Stay away from Windows 2000 with a 10,000 foot
pole," he says.
Hirsch said switching operating systems could cost as much as $10,000
for a system with 20 networked PCs. That sort of small-business setup is
far more complex to upgrade than the single, stand-alone computer we installed
it on. The price includes technicians' time and the cost of the operating
system, which is expected to be between $100 and $150 per PC. That's not
counting time lost to dealing with problems the bugs cause, he adds.
Microsoft says the naysayers are wrong. "Businesses of all sizes will
benefit right away," insists Craig Beilinson, a Microsoft product marketing
manager for Windows 2000 Professional. "It will be the most reliable version
of Windows we've ever shipped." How does he know? Beilinson insists that
the test version is already proving stable. However, there are no empirical
tests to rely on.
Beilinson also insists Windows 2000's wizards will save small companies
money in the long run because less time will be lost to training. Beilinson
did agree that if your computers are working well now, there's no need
rush into Windows 2000. On the other hand, "if your Windows 98 system isn't
as stable as you would like, or if security is a concern, you should to
start looking at Windows 2000 now," he says.
Michael Gartenberg, vice-president at GartnerGroup, a technology research
firm, recommends small businesses wait until 2001 before they bother to
upgrade -- assuming Microsoft hits its end-of-1999 shipment target. He predicts
it will take at least six more months before Microsoft releases an update
that fixes the bugs. "Sometimes the bug fixes create more problems, so
you have to wait until everything's stabilized," Gartenberg says. Meanwhile,
software vendors will keep releasing products that work with Windows 98
and Windows 95 as well as Windows 2000.
You can't hold off forever, though. Vendors eventually stop supporting
software developed for older operating systems. That's what happened when
Microsoft introduced Windows 95 and phased out Windows 3.1. When's
the moment of truth? Probably five years away.
David Haskin in Madison, Wis.