Compelling technical reasons to hold off upgrading to Windows XP

Windows XP has a lot to offer the large multiuser environment. But you'll still have to ponder the needs of your organization before making this move. Brien Posey examines some technical issues that might lead you to put off the upgrade.

One visit to the Microsoft Windows XP Pro Web site and you’ll see countless reasons Microsoft gives for upgrading. I like Windows XP (no hate mail, please) and have already upgraded all of my Windows 9x machines to the new operating system. For others, upgrading just doesn’t make sense. Many will have financial reasons for not upgrading, but I’ll share with you what I find to be the best technical reasons for not upgrading to Windows XP.

Note to Microsoft bashers
Keep in mind that these are not the unsubstantiated reasons not to upgrade to Windows XP that you’ll find at certain Web sites.

Additional hardware requirements
Windows XP has more stringent hardware requirements than Windows 9x. For example, Microsoft recommends having a minimum of a 300-MHz processor, 128 MB of RAM, and 1.5 GB of free hard disk space on any system on which you plan to run Windows XP. Obviously, these are far beyond the requirements of the various versions of Windows 9x.

Even if you have a beefy system with plenty of processing power, memory, and disk space, there’s still a chance that your system may not be capable of running Windows XP unless each of the system’s components is listed on the Hardware Compatibility List.

Application incompatibility
Not all Windows applications will run on Windows XP. In fact, when you install Windows XP, the Setup program will present you with a list of installed applications that may not run correctly under Windows XP. Some of the items on the list, like antivirus software, are obvious, but expect a few surprises.

When I upgraded my primary production workstation to Windows XP, I found out that the Microsoft Phone System does not work with Windows XP. I had to spend three hundred dollars for a new phone system.

Security problems
Microsoft has worked hard to make Windows XP secure, but one potential major security hole it left in is the Remote Assistance feature, which allows users to send an invitation for help to the person of their choosing. The recipient is then able to assist the troubled user via remote control.

The problem with this feature is that users can ask anyone they want for help; they aren’t limited to asking the help desk for assistance. The assistant has no more privileges than the local user, but the thought of a user allowing someone from outside the company to work on their PC is frightening, to say the least.

Product activation problems
Mandatory product activation is another reason for not upgrading to Windows XP. A lot of rumors are circulating about the way product activation works. For example, you may have heard that if too many different hardware components on your system are changed, Windows XP will think it's running on a different system, and will conclude that the software is pirated. The truth is that if too many hardware components are changed in a system you may be asked to reactivate Windows. Windows won’t simply cease to function.

However, the activation feature does prevent users from running a single copy of Windows XP on multiple computers or from removing Windows XP from one computer and installing it onto another computer. If the thought of not being able to run a user’s OS on another system (legally, of course) or if Microsoft's policing of its users through product activation annoys you, you might be happier with your existing operating system.

Pop-up messages
Windows XP displays pop-up messages indicating various system conditions. For example, you might see a pop-up message if a wireless network connection is out of range, if your display isn’t running at a high enough resolution, or if Windows doesn’t like the number of icons on your desktop. Some of the pop-up messages are for minor problems; others relate to more serious conditions.

I certainly have no problem with system messages, but Windows XP seems to generate an excessive number of unnecessary messages. To an experienced user, these messages tend to be a minor annoyance. To the help desk, these messages tend to be a royal pain because they mean lots of unnecessary phone calls from less experienced users.

File registration issues
Windows XP is less flexible with its file extension registrations than previous versions of Windows. For example, I have a video capture and editing package that I use extensively. When running Windows 98, I could double-click on an MPEG file or an AVI file, and Windows would open my personal video application. In Windows XP, clicking on a video file opens Windows Movie Maker, regardless of how many times I’ve reinstalled my video application.

It’s possible to re-associate file extensions by editing the registry, but doing so can be a pain, especially on a large scale. If your organization uses obscure applications to work with common file types, your users may become frustrated with the way Windows opens the "wrong application."

Patches and fixes
As in any other version of Windows, patches and fixes should be installed to keep Windows XP working correctly. You can bet on many more patches in the future. Windows 9x and Windows 2000 also have a lot of necessary patches, but if everyone is already running an older version of Windows, the more critical patches are probably already in place. Upgrading to a new version of Windows means downloading more patches and distributing them to all of the workstations.

Tough-to-find drivers
It can be tough to find drivers for your older hardware devices with Windows XP—especially for hardware devices whose manufacturers have gone out of business or have quit supporting the particular device in favor of a newer model. Even if you do manage to find a working driver, Windows will try to discourage you from using any device driver that hasn’t been digitally signed by warning you about the consequences of accepting unsigned drivers with several pop-up dialog boxes.

When a hardware device doesn’t have a device driver available, you might be able to use a Windows 9x, Windows 2000, or even Windows NT driver in its place. Still, if you don’t have a Windows XP driver available, it’s hard to know which, if any, of the other available drivers will work. Often, it comes down to a time-consuming process of elimination.

Real technology needs
Some would argue that an upgrade would be worthwhile because of bug fixes and security enhancements, but if everything is already working properly, bug fixes aren’t really a consideration. Likewise, if you operate in a low security environment, security enhancements probably won’t be a big selling point.

Your IT manager should carefully consider the company’s technology needs for the next several years. Even if he or she gave you a large budget for an upgrade and all of your systems are able to handle Windows XP, you may simply not need it to stay competitive. Some organizations can get by on older operating systems for several years after they’re considered past their prime. Unless your company must stay cutting edge to keep up with its competitors, you can save yourself a lot of headaches by avoiding the time and expense of an unnecessary upgrade.

User training
Training is expensive and users must spend time away from their normal duties to acquaint themselves with the new operating system. Otherwise, support calls will mount up and you’ll spend a good deal of your admin time answering basic OS questions.

Windows XP has a different (some would say better) user interface than Windows 9x, Windows NT, and Windows 2000. Although the interface is fairly intuitive, rest assured that unless you provide adequate training, some users will have a difficult time figuring out the new interface.

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