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Exploring The Planet Of Windows XP

IT Managers should avoid Windows XP this year and enjoy the new Planet of the Apes movie. Learn the connection--and the controversy--in this week's Internet Zone.

It's fitting that the latest beta of Microsoft's Windows XP operating system arrived on the same day that I purchased tickets for the new Planet of the Apes movie.

The movie is a significant technological advance over the five original Apes films. Similarly, XP is a significant update on the five previous versions of the Windows operating system (Windows 95, 98, NT, ME, and 2000). While both Planet of the Apes and Windows XP pretty much stick to their original scripts, they also offer a slick new look and feel for their respective customers.

But there's a more important similarity between Planet of the Apes and Windows XP: a theme of control. Both Microsoft, led by Bill Gates, and the apes, led by a militaristic chimpanzee named General Thade, want to dominate the opposition. In Planet of the Apes, Thade at first accepts a degree of coexistence with humans but soon manipulates ape politics so that he can suppress them. Gates carves a similar path with Windows XP, which is worse at providing access to third-party application vendors than previous versions of Windows. Windows XP is missing some de facto standard enabling technologies, such as a Java Virtual Machine (JVM)and MP3 encoding, and the default desktop application space is dominated by improved versions of Microsoft's Web browser, media player, and instant-messaging applications.

By default, those three applications--Internet Explorer 6, Windows Media Player 8, and Windows Messenger 4--will be installed. Although users are free to install their own competing applications, the controversy here is about equal access. I didn't have the option to install competing applications when I installed Windows XP, and, with these improved Microsoft versions, it's much less likely that I will.

Competing vendors also need access to Windows source code so that they can build applications that are as good as Microsoft's. Is this a climate where any competitor can survive on the desktop against Microsoft? (Kodak recently came up against this problem with XP. Read "Microsoft: A Clear And Present Danger".)

There are also missing technologies, such as JVM and MP3 encoding capability. Users can download Microsoft's JVM free (it's about 5 Mbytes), and it will also be included on the CD-ROM for those who have the single-image CD-ROM of Windows XP. The lack of a JVM, of course, is fallout from Sun's lawsuit against Microsoft, but a lack of pre-installed JVM is one more hassle that IT Managers don't want to face.

Windows Media Player 8 has strong support for MP3s in every category except, perhaps, the most important one: an MP3 encoder. There is no MP3 encoder in Windows Media Player 8; that's because Microsoft wants you to use its Windows Media Audio (WMA) format instead of MP3 format. This is more of a hassle for every-day users than for IT managers, but it underscores Microsoft's willingness to avoid accepted open standards in favor of its own technology.

Stirring up further controversy is Microsoft's new anti-piracy scheme, called Microsoft Product Activation, which is already part of Microsoft's Office XP suite. It's geared toward the casual pirate--mainly, people who lend other people their installation CD-ROMs.

Microsoft Product Activation appears to have good intentions, but it has abundant potential for making an IT manager miserable. It works this way: After you install Windows XP on a PC, a hash value is computed based on aspects of your PC's hardware configuration. This value, along with your Microsoft serial number, is sent over the Internet to a Microsoft server that stores the value in a database. If someone attempts to install from your Windows XP CDROM again, a check will be made against the hash value and the serial number to determine if the number of licensed systems has been exceeded. If the CD-ROM is only supposed to be used on one system, another system won't be able to run with it. If your system doesn't have access to the Internet for activation, Microsoft says it will have call centers available around the clock to register your system.

For IT managers, it's easy to see where things can get painful. For example, if a hard disk crashes, gets wiped out, or replaced, you'll have to activate the system again because the stored "installation ID" will change. It also makes network installation more complicated, although Microsoft says that companies who purchase XP through certain Microsoft Volume Licensing programs will not be required to use Product Activation.

If your hardware configuration changes in a major way, you'll also be faced with a new activation scenario, because the hash value will change. You'll need to telephone a Microsoft Product Activation representative for reactivation. Finally, activated PCs will periodically connect with Microsoft's Activation servers to make sure you're in compliance. That should add some interesting packet traces to your firewall logs.

Microsoft has a Web page that does a good job of answering most Product Activation questions, but the proof of concept won't come until a lot of users jump on the Windows XP bandwagon and Product Activation gets tested over time.

Windows XP is, by far, the most controversial version of the operating system that Microsoft has ever developed. If it makes its scheduled Oct. 25 release date without the specter of a lawsuit dangling over it, I'll be impressed.

In the meantime, from this reviewer's perspective, Windows XP should be avoided until Product Activation is proven to be a non-issue for administrators. The lack of a JVM also needs to be addressed.

Did I forget anything? Oh yeah. I don't want to spoil the ending of Planet of the Apes, but perhaps there's hope for peaceful coexistence after all.

Do these Windows XP "features" present problems for your IT shop? Or do you just want to talk about the movie? Either way, meet me in my Listening Post discussion forum, where I'll be happy to talk about my opinions and listen to yours.

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
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