Yes, you need an operating system, but don't feel compelled to get the one that Microsoft is pushing you to buy. Windows XP is definitely one to skip or, at the very least, wait on for two or three years until Microsoft quits supporting your current Windows version according to its newly accelerated obsolescence schedule. XP is all about exercising what financial analysts lovingly refer to as "Microsoft's pricing power" and turning the knob on your upgrade treadmill up a notch to "Forced March."
The best thing Redmond has been able to say about its last three operating systems is that the new one is more stable and secure than the last one they sold you. That eventually turns out to be false--it took exactly two months for XP vulnerabilities to be unmasked. But, of course, the bad news always seems to arrive after the magazine reviews.
Reviewers are raving about the fact that Windows XP has multimedia player enhancements and Instant Messaging, along with a couple of other ideas that were "subsumed" (a Microsoft word) from those who invented them. No one ever asks about the economy of building fast-evolving applications right into the footings of our desktops and then interleaving tons of spaghetti code with Internet access.
If you use Windows 98, Windows Millennium or Windows 2000, you have an OK OS and should stick with it. An OS upgrade is the classic example of how the costs of system audits, installation, training and support can drown out advertised productivity benefits. Gartner puts the total cost of upgrading a desktop at about $10,000, and the total cost of ownership on a typical system at anywhere between $4,500 to $11,000.
How long would it take your company to recover that? More important, we as consumers need to be wary of a technology partner who sells us an operating system it plans to retire in a year (Windows Me) to 18 months (Windows 2000) when thinking about buying an OS upgrade.
And let's not forget about Linux. It's been stable because it's an ongoing volunteer coding project that's focused on excellence rather than on revenue stream. With IBM pumping in distribution and marketing cash, Linux has now become a widely used alternative for LAN and Internet servers.
It's far less popular on front-office desktops because of limited hardware drivers and productivity applications--although there is a new version of Sun Microsystems' StarOffice out in the market. You can also get popular Windows applications to run under Linux if you work at it. Bottom line: This good back-office alternative may move upfront someday.