If you’ve read my article “Businesses should go with Win2K Pro and ignore XP,” then you’re aware of the skepticism I have over Microsoft’s latest client operating system. However, the official launch of Windows XP has a lot of IT professionals asking the simple question, “What’s the real value proposition for upgrading to Windows XP?”

The answer to that question depends greatly on the Windows platform that you are currently using. If your organization is still running Windows 95/98, then you are losing precious hours of productivity every day for end users and for the IT staff that supports them. Most of these organizations should seriously consider how to budget for an upgrade to Windows 2000 Professional immediately. That’s right, I said Windows 2000 Professional and not Windows XP Professional. For the reasons why, read “Businesses should go with Win2K Pro and ignore XP.”

Nevertheless, Windows XP Professional can provide significant value for organizations that can benefit from some of XP’s newest enhancements. Thus, I’m going to give you the details on what I consider to be the five most significant enhancements in Windows XP. Here are the five enhancements that can provide direct return on investment for businesses.

1. WLAN features
The most valuable enhancement in Windows XP is the way that it intuitively handles 802.11b wireless LAN connectivity. In the current market, WLANs involve a patchwork of vendors, equipment, drivers, software, and security mechanisms. This can often lead to confusion and difficulty in setting up and administering WLANs, or even worse, to security lapses that can compromise networks.

However, Windows XP is very WLAN savvy, streamlining WLAN configuration and security and making it much easier for users to roam between WLANs. Windows XP includes the Wireless Zero Configuration service, and Microsoft has partnered with 802.11b NIC vendors so that their NIC drivers are automatically part of this service.

Thus, upon loading XP, the operating system automatically recognizes most wireless NICs. Then the system automatically goes out and looks for available WLAN networks and lists the networks it finds. Of course, new wireless configuration tabs in the networking applet will allow an administrator to set a list of preferred WLANs, and the NIC will automatically connect to those in the order specified. Obviously, this has excellent implications for roaming wireless LAN users.

Windows XP also steps up WLAN security by simplifying WEP configuration and integrating and documenting RADIUS support on WLANs as a way of keeping wireless attackers at bay.

All in all, these features represent an outstanding improvement that could help propel WLAN implementations. This is the one area where Windows XP Professional provides a major advantage over Windows 2000 Professional. Nearly everyone using a laptop running Windows to connect to a WLAN in a corporate environment will want to upgrade their machine to Windows XP Professional as long as the laptop has enough processing power and RAM.

2. System Restore and Device Driver Rollback
The System Restore is another unique Windows XP feature that will benefit Windows 2000 Pro desktops. Windows Me first introduced System Restore, which allows you to take the OS back to an earlier state. I was a bit skeptical when I first heard of this feature, but when I actually used it for the first time in Windows Me (after a downloaded piece of rogue software brought down a machine that I was managing), I was amazed at how well it worked. In fact, my jaw dropped and I had a look of “you’ve got to be kidding me” on my face when I realized how easy it was go back to an earlier version of the system software that was working smoothly.

Smaller organizations that do not have the resources to thoroughly test new programs on a test network sandbox before installing them on desktop machines will benefit from increased productivity that can be gained with this feature. Although the feature is included in Windows Me, Windows XP Professional is a much more stable OS. If you want this feature in a business environment, definitely upgrade to Windows XP Pro rather than to Windows Me.

Similar to System Restore, Device Driver Rollback is a new feature that is unique to Windows XP and allows you to go back to an earlier version of a device driver if you are having problems with a newly installed driver (which, unfortunately, is a common occurrence). This feature is nicely integrated into the Properties sheet of each device and, like System Restore, provides a quick and easy way to compensate for the kinds of software conflicts that have caused administrators a lot of headaches in the past.

3. Remote Desktop and Remote Assistance
Remote Desktop is a highly touted new feature that allows you to connect to your Windows XP Professional computer from another Windows machine. This can be especially useful if you want to connect to your office computer from your home computer in order to access the same applications and systems you access from work. Of course, you would first have to connect to the corporate LAN using a dial-up or VPN connection.

Essentially, Remote Desktop is a built-in version of remote access software such as pcAnywhere or LapLink, although it does not contain many of the advanced features of these programs. Nevertheless, Remote Desktop is fast, efficient, and easy to use. The technology is based on Windows Terminal Services, and any Windows client running the Terminal Services client software can access the Windows XP Pro machine once you set it up to utilize the Remote Desktop feature and set up the appropriate access permissions.

Remote Assistance is a related feature that allows an end user running Windows XP Professional to get advanced technical support. A user simply goes to Start | Help | Support | Remote Assistance and can then use e-mail or Windows Messenger to contact a technician. They can even browse using Windows Messenger to see a list of technicians who are online. Once connected with a technician, who can now see the user’s desktop, the user can have a chat (or a voice call if both computers have microphones and speakers), can send a file, or can release control of the computer so that the technician can work on it remotely.

Many large organizations already have advanced help desk software that can perform many of these same functions (and more). However, small and medium-size businesses that do not yet have this kind of functionality or are considering implementing it may find it much easier and less expensive to simply upgrade their desktop clients to Windows XP Professional and take advantage of Remote Assistance than it would be to implement an elaborate piece of help desk software.

4. Application Compatibility Mode
Another major improvement in Windows XP Pro is in the realm of application compatibility. While Win2K Pro will run a lot of the software that previously ran on Windows 95/98 and even DOS, there are still many of these programs that choke when running on Windows NT/2000. With Windows XP, Microsoft has introduced Application Compatibility Mode, which allows the operating system to make an application think that it’s running on an older version of Windows.

This very useful and effective feature is particularly valuable for organizations that have had custom applications developed on older Microsoft operating systems. However, it does not work in every instance. Some older, DOS-based programs will still choke when run in Application Compatibility Mode.

Microsoft has also made Application Compatibility Mode a part of Windows 2000 with the release of Win2K Service Pack 2, so this particular feature does not provide any additional value over Windows 2000 Professional.

5. Client firewall
Windows XP now comes with its own Internet Connection Firewall built into the networking functionality of all network interfaces. It is accessed from the Properties applet of any network interface by simply clicking the Advanced tab, activating the firewall, and customizing the settings.

Client machine firewalls are definitely the next frontier in securing corporate networks. These firewalls are especially important for laptop and remote users who connect over the Internet since attackers can get an easy ride into a corporate network by hijacking one of these potentially easy targets.

The built-in firewall in Windows XP is easy to configure while providing some advanced filtering and logging capabilities. It is more than adequate for most organizations, although it does not contain some of the more robust features of a product such as ZoneAlarm Pro.

While the desktop firewall alone does not provide justification for upgrading to Windows XP Pro, organizations that are currently considering a desktop firewall rollout may consider upgrading to Windows XP if they can also directly benefit from some of the other features listed above.

End sum
There they are. The top five reasons for upgrading to Windows XP Pro. Each organization can decide for itself whether it is ready to drop over $100 per machine on Windows XP. In a number of cases, upgrading will be money well spent. If you do decide to go with Windows XP Pro, make sure you purchase it using one of Microsoft’s volume-licensing options rather than buying individual copies. The volume licensing starts at five licenses, and it saves you the major annoyance of having to deal with Product Activation.

All in all, I still believe that for most businesses, Windows XP Pro does not provide significant value above and beyond Windows 2000 Pro, which still maintains a number of advantages, most notably that it has had time to mature as a product. Those who are still running Windows 95/98 on the desktop have a tough decision to make as to whether to upgrade to Win2K Pro or WinXP Pro.

How do you feel about Windows XP Professional?

We look forward to getting your input and hearing your experiences regarding this topic. Post a comment or a question about this article.