Last autumn, Microsoft used Madonna’s hit single “Ray of Light” in a glitzy advertising campaign for the launch of its new desktop operating system, Windows XP. It didn’t take long for a joke to surface on the Internet suggesting that a more appropriate theme tune might be her song “Frozen” — a reference to the system crashes notorious in earlier releases of Windows.
Geeks chuckled, but the jibe was probably off-target. XP is not only the most visibly dramatic overhaul of the Microsoft desktop since Windows 95, it is being hailed as the company’s most stable and secure OS ever. That alone ought to be enough to get most CFOs’ attention, especially any still in therapy over their IT department’s last glitch-ridden, over-budget software rollout.
But XP — in particular XP Professional, the version aimed at businesses — is also loaded with new user management, tech support, and multimedia features that promise corporate users strategic benefits such as lower teleconferencing costs or better mobile workers’ productivity.
At any rate, with the new software into its seventh month in stores and pre-installed on most new machines, XP is a rapidly approaching juggernaut that is hard for even the most IT-phobic CFO to ignore. “It’s inevitable that businesses will migrate to Windows XP,” says Daphne Chung, a senior software analyst for IDC Asia/Pacific. In fact, pretty much any finance manager with a substantial number of desktop-computer users will soon have to assess the business implications of migrating partially or wholly to XP, from the capital outlay to purchase or lease new software (and hardware) to the hidden costs of work disruption.
Seasoned CFOs want proof the new platform measures up before committing to wide-scale rollout. “I don’t mind paying for the technology [upgrade] if I can derive value from it,” says Paulus Lee, executive director of finance for the Hong Kong Jockey Club. “But I’m against upgrading for the sake of it,” he says. The Jockey Club is testing XP for possible phased introduction to around 3,000 PCs used for office work. Another 3,600 “telebet” machines used purely for taking wagers will not be upgraded unless they need replacing. Although a decision on XP is still months away, executive director for information technology Steve Beason predicts a third of the club’s office machines will have XP within 18 months.
Whether an upgrade makes sense depends on the platform currently in use. Companies that run older Microsoft operating systems, such as Windows 95 and Windows 98, have the most to gain from XP’s broader feature set, stability and “networkability.” The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, based in Hong Kong, is testing XP on a limited basis as it plans technology upgrades to keep pace with business expansion. Results so far have been encouraging. “I’m historically a Unix guy,” says director of technology Nick Price. “Today XP has much of the reliability, manageability, and scalability that Unix always had,” he says.
XP appeals less to companies that use the already-robust Windows 2000 platform, something even Microsoft concedes. XP is closely related to Windows 2000, itself a relatively recent release. That means the incremental benefits of an upgrade may not justify a further investment. “If you have Windows 2000 installed, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll want to upgrade to XP,” says Graham Brant, former general manager for Microsoft in Hong Kong and now president of ATPath Technologies, which specializes in systems development and E-business automation. Beason, however, says XP has proven more reliable than Windows 2000.
Both agree XP trumps its predecessor in one area crucial for many enterprises: the ability to handle legacy applications. XP has an emulation mode that helps it run programs written for older platforms. Brant — who likes to test this by playing Windows 95 games on new machines — says often applications that trip up Windows 2000 work perfectly with XP. Even if bringing alien combat to every desktop isn’t a priority, XP can spare CFOs the pain of paying twice for the same work. “You don’t have to rewrite the whole code to get [a program] to run on Windows XP,” says Balaprakash Kasiviswanathan, Asia marketing manager for Microsoft in Singapore.
Other features are attracting interest. Mandarin Oriental is looking at XP’s built-in IP videoconferencing, teleconferencing, and remote-user assistance tools — for employees who travel frequently between properties and need what Price calls the heavy-duty “road warrior stuff.” Price has been surprised by the progress Windows has made towards plug-and-play ease of use. “It’s a highly intelligent operating system when it comes to autoconfiguration of an IP-network environment,” he says.
If trials progress well, Mandarin Oriental will roll out XP across another 3,500 PCs worldwide. Not everyone is so enthusiastic, though. Some CFOs and IT managers express caution about using XP until it becomes more established, in particular until the first service pack is released later this year. Others are deterred by bad experiences with earlier Microsoft platforms.
Still, XP is undoubtedly turning heads. If real-world use proves it to be as robust and capable as Microsoft claims, finance managers may even agree with Price’s upbeat verdict on migrating to the new OS. “If I were a CFO, I’d want to know why my IT people aren’t doing it,” he says. Over the top? XP isn’t right for every company, but at least it should stem the flow of bad Microsoft jokes.
Jake Statham is a freelance writer for CFO Asia based in Hong Kong.