Marketing is about sizzle, so as Microsoft (MSFT) moves toward the official Oct. 25 launch of Windows XP, expect to hear a lot about its colorful new looks, the rich use of graphics, and a number of new features. The latest bells and whistles range from the useful to the annoying, with some of the best easing the handling of pictures, video, and music. But none of this has much to do with why you should consider moving to XP.
The changes in XP that really matter are not obvious and are, in many cases, invisible. XP is important because, simply, it works a lot better than Windows 95, 98, or Me. Since Microsoft released Windows NT 4.0 in 1996, and especially since Windows 2000 came out two years ago, consumers have been second-class citizens. True, NT and, to a lesser extent, 2000 require a technician to install and configure. These business-oriented operating systems are fussy about software and even pickier about what hardware you can use. But they work without the crashes and mysterious glitches that have always plagued consumer versions of Windows. Microsoft has been struggling for several years to retain the stability of NT while making it easier to use and getting it to work with a much broader range of hardware and software, including arcade-style games.
SPLASHY COLORS. Windows XP is the result, and on the whole, it's a success. XP comes in two flavors: Home, a $99 upgrade from Windows 98 or Me, and Professional, a $199 upgrade from Windows 98, Me, NT, or 2000. Pro will probably also fetch a $100 premium above the cost of a new computer.
The two versions are essentially the same. The Home edition lacks a few features, including file encryption, remote access, and integration with Windows 2000 Server. These are important to big enterprises but of little interest to consumers. The Home edition includes most of the security features of Pro, including support for multiple users and safe file-sharing on networks. (I'll write about getting the most out of the security features in a future column.) There's no reason for home users to spend the extra money unless they have been running NT or 2000, which can only be upgraded to the pricier edition.
When you fire up Windows XP, you'll notice that the screen looks different from the familiar design, which has changed little since Windows 95. The most striking thing about the new look is the bold--in my opinion, garish--use of primary colors. Fortunately, you can easily switch back to the calmer blues and grays of classic Windows. But whichever look you choose, you'll get the benefit of important usability improvements, some of which first appeared in Windows Me and 2000 and some of which are new to XP.
The Start menu has undergone drastic revision. It uses new, more detailed icons to give you graphic clues about the contents of its seven logically organized panes. In the upper left-hand corner are icons for your Web browser and e-mail program. When you first set up XP, these are Internet Explorer and Outlook Express. But if you install Netscape and make that your default, the icons automatically change. Just below are a list of your most frequently used applications. As part of the relentless self-promotion that pervades XP, these are set initially to a variety of Microsoft offerings, such as Media Player and Movie Maker. But as you start using your own applications, their icons appear on the list. The All Programs button on the bottom opens a program listing similar to that in previous Windows versions.
Panes on the right give you access to key file folders such as My Documents, a variety of system management panes, a help and search pane, and shutdown and log-off controls. (Yes, shutdown is still on the Start menu.) Another folder is My Network Places, which lists storage either on a LAN or, as is becoming increasingly important, on the Web. For example, Microsoft is partnering with Xdrive Technology to offer 75 megabytes of Web storage for $4.95 a month.
Where designers use the new icon approach to particular advantage is the My Computer screen. The older version was a jumble of icons for disk drives, CD-ROMs, maybe a network drive or two, and, for no apparent reason, an icon for the Control Panels. The new My Computer is, like many XP windows, multipaned. The main section groups storage devices by type: hard drives, removable media, and network connections. A strip on the left offers system tasks, such as adding or removing programs, and a list of other folders, such as My Documents. With the click of a button, you can exchange that strip for a Windows Explorer-style list of all of the folders on your computer.
Another important change is that XP understands that while pictures and music may just be data to a computer, people regard them as fundamentally different from, say, Word documents. XP handles them more intelligently. So when you open a folder containing photos, you see thumbnail versions of the pictures, rather than icons--and the window's task menu changes to include picture tasks, such as printing or showing the images on the screen as a slide show.
TOO PUSHY. Unfortunately, this special handling of media leads to the dark side of Windows XP. Microsoft sees Windows as a way to steer business to commercial services provided by the company and its partners who, in effect, pay Microsoft to rent space on your desktop. So when you choose the "Order prints online" task in a photo folder, Windows steers your business to Microsoft partners Shutterfly and Fujifilm. Click "Shop for music online" in a music folder, and you're off to Microsoft's WindowsMedia.com. Whether this is illegal leveraging of Microsoft's desktop monopoly is an argument I'll leave to the lawyers, but I don't like it.
Microsoft is equally aggressive in using XP to promote its nascent .NET services. Starting during setup and from time to time thereafter, a pop-up window asks you to sign up for Microsoft Passport, which lets you use a single log-in and password for a variety of Web sites. You can ignore the request, and it will go away, but, again, I resent the badgering. (I'll offer advice on getting Microsoft and other vendors out of your face in an upcoming column.) For now, registering a Passport through Windows XP doesn't do much. The main effect seems to be automatic notification when mail arrives in your Hotmail inbox. But Microsoft has plans for a slew of services based on Passport.
These, however, are fairly minor complaints about what is, on the whole, a big improvement in usability. That said, should you rush out and spend $100 or so to upgrade your computer? For a detailed discussion of the promise and pitfalls of upgrading, see Technology & You online. In general, upgrading from Windows 95 is out of the question and Windows 98 is problematic. An upgrade from Windows Me is fairly straightforward and mostly likely to be worth the trouble, since Me is awful. The upgrade from Windows 2000 is generally easy, but the payoff is not that great, since 2000 is already very good.
If you run Windows, sooner or later you will want XP. Maybe you don't need it badly enough to buy a new PC immediately or to plunk down $100 and try what could be a difficult upgrade. But this is the first version of Windows since 95 that makes a real difference for the average computer owner. It's definitely worth having. By Stephen H. Wildstrom