Great XPectations

Microsoft may have finally built an operating system that will reduce, maybe even eradicate, daily lockups and blue-screen mystery messages. Windows XP Professional, due Oct. 25, has judiciously upgraded its predecessor, Windows 2000 Pro, in three primary areas—appearance, management, and security and networking. Windows XP may just become the reliable, predictable operating system Microsoft Corp. promised us seven years ago with Windows 95.

Secure Connections

Microsoft's "extend and embrace" philosophy now includes Remote Desktop Access (RDA), a single-session terminal server with features similar to Symantec Corp.'s PCAnywhere and CrossTec Corp.'s NetOp Remote Control. Remote users can use TCP/IP dial-up, leased lines or a LAN to access one Windows XP Pro-based host machine from a PC running Windows 95, 98, Me, NT 4 or 2000. The version bundled with XP Pro automatically logs off remote users and powers down the host at the session's end. Although its competitors run on a variety of operating systems, RDA requires at least one machine to be running XP.

XP allows users to log in to terminal server sessions using smart cards. Eliminating multiple authentications can save time for users and minimize configuration headaches.

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Do You Need It?

We've heard the proclamations from Microsoft before—that the new release is the best yet. This time, however, the vendor may have it right. XP's improved networking, security and enterprise-class management features make an upgrade from NT 4.0 worth considering. But if you're using Windows 2000 Pro and it runs your applications satisfactorily, there's little reason to upgrade. That's because Win 2k Pro and Win XP Pro have far more similarities than differences.

Intruders will find their way past even the best of security policies and firewalls. File encryption can go a long way toward protecting sensitive information, and XP comes with a utility, Encrypting File System (EFS), that transparently encrypts documents in real time using a randomly generated key. First introduced in Windows 2000 for single users, XP's expanded version of EFS synchronizes with back-end servers to let multiple users access encrypted documents. But the utility encrypts only files stored in an NT file system, not the Fat32 file system.

XP's Group Policy settings accelerate rolling out new security policies, appearance and management options across multiple computers by organizational boundaries, such as departments or workgroups. This can help assure that all machines conform to the latest security standards and eliminate any unauthorized changes users make. XP will ship with more than 300 customizable policies.

Security and convenience for wireless devices will get a major boost. You'll no longer need to punch in the wireless-carrier-supplied network identification number. This should simplify life for travelers who roam across multiple networks.

Compatibility

A holdover from days past, peer-to-peer networking enables XP users to share one another's desktops, folders and printers. Now called Remote Assistance, the P2P connectivity tool lets a user invite a co-worker or guru to connect to his machine to resolve hardware or software problems. Requests for help are extended via an e-mail attachment that recipients just click on to initiate the connection. The ability to see a problem firsthand and investigate it directly, without having to visit the machine, should make life a tad easier for help desk personnel. Also, the tool can run diagnostics on the client machine from a remote location.

I tested these two remote-access features on a Hewlett-Packard Co. Vectra, multibooting XP and Windows 98, and experienced few problems. Release Candidate 1 crashed much less than Windows 98 did.

Antipiracy Activism

Microsoft has added one more convoluted step to installing XP on a PC. When you run it for the first time, you're asked to contact Microsoft by Internet or telephone to obtain an activation key. Without this, the operating system will lock up after a specified time period or number of uses. The activation key is based on the PC's specific hardware configuration so as to preclude illegal multiple installations from a single CD and complicate hardware upgrades. The activation procedure is annoying and works only for Microsoft's benefit, not users'.

Microsoft has also changed the Windows graphical user interface yet again. Users who don't like XP's softer, more colorful face can revert to the classic Windows theme—which may also postpone the need for user retraining. Thus, IT managers may want to use Group Policy to deploy a uniform appearance. I prefer XP's 3-D look, but what I really want is an operating system that doesn't freeze up every day. And this may be it.

Millman is a consultant in Croton, N.Y.

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Windows XP Activation Aggravation

With Windows XP, both Home and Professional versions, Microsoft has taken a fairly drastic step to preclude software piracy. It has adopted a procedure called activation, which is also used in the Office XP suite of applications [Hands On, July 23], but which is restrictive enough to make one question its value to Microsoft in light of the bad taste it leaves users with. In fact, there has been so much negative comment from reviewers and beta testers that at press time, Microsoft announced a loosening-up of restrictions.

Here's how activation will work for most users: When you install the operating system, you still need to give it the 25-character CD key that comes on the CD case. But when you fire it up for the first time, you're informed that you must activate the program. The process is quick enough -- 30 seconds via Internet or up to five minutes on the telephone. When you do this, a special activation code is generated that reflects information about the specific hardware on which you've installed the operating system. If you don't activate the product within a given period (14 days, at the moment) after installation, the operating system disables itself.

What is problematic about activation is that it periodically checks your machine's hardware (including the CPU, hard drive and optical drive), and if it sees enough things changed from what it knows about, it figures you may be trying to sneak in an illegal second installation on a different machine -- even if you've just upgraded your machine with a bigger hard drive, more memory or whatever.

Anyway, Microsoft has apparently raised the threshold at which activation disables the system from three changes to 10 within a given period of time (currently undefined, perhaps up to 90 days). So when you upgrade your system, you can reinstall XP Pro and may or may not need to reactivate it. If you have done a lot of reconfiguration, you may have to call and get a new activation code.

As of now, activation is slated to be needed only for software bought through retail channels. Microsoft will allow accounts that purchase a volume license (which can be for as little as two licenses) to run a script for bulk activation, which will eliminate the need for end-user activity. And computer makers with OEM accounts can deliver machines preactivated. Thus, activation should be a non-issue for most IT managers, systems integrators and consultants, as well as those buying new computers with XP preinstalled.

To its credit, Microsoft is trying to make the activation process relatively unobtrusive. According to David Jaffe, a Microsoft product manager, the company has set up a special activation-only call center whose goal is to make sure that legitimate customers can use their products. "In almost no instance," Jaffe said, "will a real customer be denied. We will err in favor of the customer being right."

Jaffe also noted that product activation has been previously used in specific geographical areas, such as Brazil, for Office 2000. Based on those experiences, Jaffe said, activation generates fewer calls than any installation issue.

Still, for most users, activation is a new procedure they must comply with, but one that they're unlikely to see any direct benefit from. This kind of antipiracy hardball, however, should be a boon to Microsoft.

—Howard Millman and Russell Kay

Windows XP Compatibility and Configuration

With a view to crash-proofing, Windows XP includes a compatibility mode that emulates aspects of Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0 or 2000. Here, if an application calls a Dynamic Link Library or application programming interface that XP doesn't have (or has a different version of), XP simulates the older environment by loading the delinquent component from a built-in compatibility database. You can have XP remember and always emulate the alternative settings. You can automatically update the compatibility database through Microsoft's Windows Update feature, or you can disable user access to the update site.

To date, Microsoft says, it has conformed 1,200 applications to run in XP's compatibility mode—reportedly with little or no performance loss. XP will ship with a compatibility checker to determine if an application will, or can be forced to, run under XP.

In addition, when new device drivers are installed, XP Pro maintains a copy of the older driver, which can be reinstalled if necessary. Windows 2000 offered a similar fail-safe feature, but XP Pro will have higher standards of compliance, according to Microsoft.

Aside from the potential hassle of activation, installation and configuration should be a relatively uneventful process. Installed over a previous Windows installation, XP will detect user settings and transfer them using the Files and Settings Wizard, including desktop configurations, dial-up connections, Internet Explorer and Outlook Express. If you install XP on a new machine, you can first run the wizard on the old machine to capture the settings, then run it again on the XP machine to transfer them.

—Howard Millman

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