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To XP or not to XP…

That is the question–nay, quandry–for IT veterans. Enterprise Pursuits Nelson King 6/4/01 To XP or not to XP That is the question–nay, quandry–for IT veterans.

As I write this, Microsoft is launching Office XP, its vaunted office application suite and mojo cash cow, with the usual flurry of nationwide seminars and a telecast gig. I know a few people who are attending. About two weeks ago a couple of friends in higher IT places e-mailed me (separately) for my opinion of the Microsoft Office XP “situation.” Neither of them is a literary stylist, but the tone of the messages revealed bewilderment. Highly unusual. It’s not that they don’t know what’s happening–they’ve read the early reviews. Heck, their own people have been working with the beta versions for months. They know that Office XP offers no sizzle and only a small cut of steak.

So, it wasn’t an opinion about the product per se that they were after.

We’ve known for years that Microsoft wants to milk its Office suite users with as many upgrades as possible. Generally this has been an annual or biannual event. As a defense, enterprise planners have acquired the habit of scrutinizing every new version, with an eye to ignoring it if at all possible. So this “situation” is familiar, in part.

One of my friends spent most of last year rolling out Office 2000. The other, thanks to a vastly distributed workforce, has hung tenaciously to Office 97. Those of you in enterprise IT already can guess most of the dynamics at play. On one end of a pressure continuum, there is attenuation (a.k.a., orphaning), where a product loses official support. At the other end is, “My God, we just put a new one in!” Like it or not, a decision on implementing Office XP is mandatory, even if it’s a do-nothing decision. It’s also a very big deal, of course, since my friends are considering tens of thousands of seats. This is not a good year for big costs–predictable or otherwise–and rolling out a new version of Office is not fully predictable. There are many issues: hardware requirements, software compatibility, training, support (yada yada). There are many possible costly surprises.

So far, this describes familiar ground. But there are also some new bumps in the terrain. This time around, there’s a possibility of real cost problems with the revised Microsoft licensing policies. This time, there is the coming of Windows XP to consider, and the .Net initiative. Plus, with the lengthening chain of new versions, there are important gray areas, such as how many versions to jump. Having so many factors to consider can be bewildering, which is where I believe my friends are coming from.

The new licensing policies, much of Windows XP, and .Net all have a common context–the decision by Microsoft to move in the direction of Web services. I won’t go into the details about what this is (or more accurately, may be), but by now you’ve probably heard the term, and it may even make some sense. To oversimplify, it’s renting software and services as opposed to buying them.

The media and most of the biggest computer corporations are touting Web services as the Next Big Thing. They may be, but in the intervening time between the hype and delivery, people like my friends are faced with trying to gauge where to jump in (or stay out) of the trend. They’re confronted with the evolution of Windows 2000 into Windows XP, which is supposed to reflect the Web services movement. They’re wondering just how much Office XP fits into this whole picture, and whether it’s merely a harbinger, or a vital bridge. In other words, some IT people are in a strategic quandary.

My advice: Forget strategy for a while. The future of Web services is shrouded in fog. You can’t plan much strategy if you can’t see where you’re going. When it comes to major applications, for the time being, be satisfied with basic tactics–a conservative strategic approach, if you will. If Office XP has features that the majority of your users need, consider the upgrade. If not, save the money and headache. If Microsoft breaks up the Office Suite into a hundred small components next year and starts renting them, maybe it’s time to consider the meaning of Web services to your company. Or not. By then, Microsoft will probably be renting a new version of Office.

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Pursuits monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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