On Oct. 25, 2001, Microsoft plans to launch its most eagerly awaited operating system upgrade since Windows 95. With Windows XP, Microsoft is hoping to recapture the frenzy of that last massive upheaval in the desktop computing landscape. Here are five tips to help you adjust to this new OS.

#1: Know which Windows is which
When Windows XP launches, you can take your choice of two distinctly different editions. Microsoft is still keeping a lid on prices, but all other details are widely available:

  • Windows XP Professional is the preferred choice for corporate networks. If you know Windows 2000 Professional, you’ll find this XP version refreshingly familiar. It uses the same kernel, offers the same security options, and connects seamlessly to existing Windows NT/2000 domains. If you’re not ready to retrain all your users, ditch the fancy new interface and choose the Classic Start Menu instead.
  • Windows XP Home Edition is the successor to Windows 98 and Windows Me. The name should be a dead giveaway, but penny-pinching IT planners and small businesses might be tempted to use this version to upgrade Windows 9X desktops—after all, it’s based on the same Windows 2000 kernel as the Professional version. Unfortunately, the Home Edition is a second-class citizen on corporate networks: Although it can access domain resources, it can’t join a domain. The new simplified sharing and security interface in Home Edition also prevents administrators from securing files and folders properly.
  • Servers based on the new OS aren’t due to arrive until about six months after the October 25 launch of Windows XP. Microsoft hasn’t even settled on a name for the new product line, which recently changed from Windows 2002 to .NET servers and may change again.

#2: Check compatibility carefully
Windows XP has an impressive software compatibility list and some cool tools that can break through compatibility roadblocks with older applications. Unfortunately, there are also some gotchas on the Hardware Compatibility List. You’ll probably have good luck with newer USB and IEEE 1394 devices, but be wary of older devices. A significant number of popular devices manufactured in the last two years won’t include out-of-the-box drivers. Pay special attention to the status of scanners, video cards, and LAN adapters.

#3: Learn how to bypass Product Activation
No single feature of Windows XP has inspired more controversy than Windows Product Activation (WPA). This antipiracy technology, which will be embedded in every retail copy of Windows XP, is aimed at deterring “casual copying” by forcing home users and small businesses to activate the product within 30 days after installation.

The existence of WPA makes it more important than ever for IT professionals to switch to volume licensing programs, which are exempt from activation requirements. Microsoft offers a wide range of licensing options, and you don’t have to be a multinational corporation to play. The Open License program, for instance, offers discounts for as few as five licenses; you can mix and match products from a long list that includes Windows, Office, and a slew of developer tools. If you are confused about Microsoft’s licensing options, read Licensing 101.

#4: Map your upgrade path
Is your organization still running Windows 95 on some systems? Don’t expect to upgrade those machines to any version of Windows XP—that’s an officially unsupported path. Upgrades over Windows 98 and Windows Me are possible, but still dicey, thanks to misbehaving applications and incompatible device drivers. Upgrading over Windows NT 4 has its own set of pitfalls, too, because of the many architectural changes between NT 4 and Windows 2000/XP. Unless you’re upgrading directly from Windows 2000, you’ll probably have better luck with clean installs.

#5: Master custom installation strategies
Windows XP Professional is loaded with options like Windows Media Player, Microsoft Movie Maker, Windows Messenger, and a slew of games that make perfect sense on a home computer but might not be welcome on a business network. Unfortunately, a plain-vanilla installation doesn’t let you remove any of these components. The solution? Learn how to hack the Setup file that hides these options. Then use the same tools you’ve already mastered for streamlining Windows 2000 installations, most notably disk cloning with Sysprep.

One extra tip
Above all, don’t feel that you need to rush into a Windows XP migration. After more than 18 months and two service packs, Windows 2000 has proven itself as a reliable business workhorse. Run some evaluations, but don’t be afraid to wait until well after the New Year before deciding whether or when to deploy XP.

Ed Bott is a longtime contributor to TechRepublic and the author of more than 15 books on Microsoft Windows and Office. He’s currently working on Microsoft Windows XP Inside Out (Microsoft Press), which will be published on October 25.

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