Mobile Computing with W2K Pro Hasn't Taken Off

Thad Kosowski, a development manager with the real-estate division of a multinational financial services company, says that he uses a laptop running Windows NT 4.0 to telecommute to work on a daily basis.

“My son and a lot of other people have told me that NT isn’t the best idea for laptops because it can be difficult to configure and it’s pretty picky about the stuff that it supports,” he says. “Even the IT guys have confirmed as much.”

At the same time, Kosowski says, NT 4.0 hasn’t really given him any problems. It’s been stable, reliable and secure, he notes, and its limited device support, lack of plug-and-play functionality and almost non-existent power management capabilities haven’t affected him. Kosowski says his son has told him that he should demand Windows 2000 on his laptop, but he says that an imperative of this kind just isn’t there.

Besides his IT department just moved him over to NT 4.0 in the last year-and-a-half as part of an internal effort to standardize on NT. “What they’re trying to do more and more is modify our systems and make them more like [the rest of the company],” Kosowski says. “Having just done that, I really don’t think they plan to move me to [Windows 2000] anytime soon.”

A Marriage Made in Heaven?

Windows 2000 should have made for an unbeatable proposition on laptop computers. With integrated support for virtual private networking (VPN), an encrypting file system, off-line storage capabilities, robust power management and plug-and-play, Microsoft’s next-generation operating system (OS) offered laptop-toting end users more than a few reasons to be optimistic about the prospects of telecommuting to work.

To be sure, laptop manufacturers report that IT organizations are demanding Windows 2000 on most of the new laptops that they order. According to Craig Marking, a product manager with Toshiba America, demand for Windows 2000 on laptops has grown “tremendously.” At the same time, Marking says, Windows 2000 adoption rates have been slowly ramping up since the long-awaited OS was first introduced in February 2000.

“Corporations are conservative beasts by nature, so they don’t necessarily leap to adopt the newest technologies,” he says. “They want to make sure that it’s been out there so that they can quality it and test it before releasing it into their environments.”

Ed Lukens, a spokesperson with laptop vendor WinBook Computer Corp., agrees. “While we don't release percentage attachment ratios, Windows 2000 has been consistently popular and has continued to increase in popularity,” Lukens says.

And yet many industry analysts suggest that Windows 2000’s acceptance as a platform for mobile commuting has to some extent disappointed Microsoft.

“I think the answer is that it hasn’t really met Microsoft’s expectations,” says Roger Kay, a research manager with market research firm and consultancy IDC. “[Microsoft won’t] say much about it, but I think that a lot of corporations have told them ‘We’re not ready to move that quick, we’re just getting our NT image stabilized, and so we’re going to stay with [NT] for a bit.’”

Rob Enderle, a senior analyst with Giga Information Group, says that most of his company’s clients are indeed demanding Windows 2000 on new laptops, but suggests that Microsoft still hasn’t done much to address some of the lingering problems associated with the laptop security model.

“For the most part, the vast majority of our enterprise customers are specifying Windows 2000 and have dumped the 9x product, and certainly the NT product,” he confirms. “But the real concern right now is security, and there’s an increasing concern that the security of the remote PC is in question. It’s in the house, a user’s kid can get access to it, it connects over a VPN, so you don’t know that you’re as secure as you’d be if a user were on a corporate desktop.”

The Windows 95 Phenomenon

When Microsoft debuted Windows 95 in August 1995, says IDC’s Kay, a lot of corporations leapt at the chance to migrate their existing infrastructures to the new operating system. Since that time, he speculates, corporate IT organizations have been much slower to adopt new operating system platforms.

“Adoptions have not been whole scale pretty much since 1995, and today very few shops will pony up the money to do it large scale. They’ll do it when they get new employees or when something breaks,” he says. “So you end up with at least two new operating environments going at the same time, and the CIO tolerates having multiple images.”

Because of this, laptop manufacturers acknowledge that there are still a lot of users running on Windows 95 or Windows 98. “There are still a lot of 95 and 98 customers out there. Remember, two or three years ago, 95 was the corporate standard for notebooks,” Toshiba’s Marking says.

And then there’s the spectre of Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows XP operating system, which many analysts – IDC’s Kay among them – claim has helped to quell enthusiasm for Windows 2000 in corporate IT organizations.

“I think that the buzz around XP began to take the wind out of Windows 2000’s sails,” he says. “They got excited about XP and started talking it up during what was to be peak launch season for Windows 2000, so organizations decided to wait and see what XP is all about. Basically, Microsoft ended up sort of burying its own OS before it had fully blossomed.”

Finally, Kay reminds us, the tech industry as a whole has suffered through an overall slowdown which actually commenced in late 1999. “In addition to all of these factors, you had the recession, which if you start looking at corporate PC shipments, they actually died in the last quarter of 1999,” he points out.

Operating System Deluge

Theodore Woo, an IT manager with a large telecommunications company, says that each new Microsoft operating system release is invariably accompanied by an imperative from the software giant to upgrade or risk being left behind.

“First there was Windows 95, which actually made sense for a lot of [IT organizations], especially on laptops,” he says. “But then [Microsoft] tried to push NT on laptops for some reason, and when Windows 98 shipped they changed their tune and said that was the one for laptops, even for business users. When Windows 2000 appeared [less than two years later], they told us that was the one we should be running.”

According to IDC’s Kay, Microsoft’s strategy of encouraging frequent operating system upgrades doesn’t necessarily serve the best interests of enterprise IT organizations.

“Basically, because Microsoft has been accelerating the rate of product introductions in recent times, I think they’re not penetrating a lot of new accounts,” he says. “They’d be perfectly happy if organizations upgraded every year, whether or not it would benefit them, so they’ve been turning the base more often to keep the revenue growth going. Obviously, CIOs don’t want to get pushed like that.”

Because of this, Toshiba’s Marking says that customers who are still running Windows 95 or Windows 98 will be good candidates for Windows XP upgrades. “The fast movers, the ones who quickly moved to Windows 2000 will continue on Windows 2000, but those that are still on 95 or 98 will likely quickly move to XP. What [customers] want to do is minimize the total number of OSes that they have to support across their operating environments. This is especially true for laptop systems.”

Windows 2000 Success Stories

Although corporations haven’t rushed out en masse to replace their “legacy” Microsoft operating systems with Windows 2000 on laptop computers, analysts say that most of them are demanding the OS on new machines.

“They’re just not buying as many new systems,” says Giga’s Enderle. “The economy has something to do with that, which makes it seem like adoptions are behind the curve.”

Moreover, IT managers who’ve upgraded existing laptops to Windows 2000 say that they’ve found the experience quite encouraging.

Bill Tillson, a Windows NT systems operations manager with Primus Managed Hosting Solutions, maintains that Windows 2000 has simply made it much easier to support laptop-toting end users.

“First of all, the plug and play hardware support is enormous. I recall fighting installs of 98 and NT on laptop. Now, it’s simple. Most installs simply require you to boot from the CD-ROM and you're off,” he says.

And Tillson says that Windows 2000’s other features, including its support for offline folders, which can transparently mirror data between network and local storage, are robust. “Offline folder and file synchronization has really come a long way,” Tillson comments. “Users not connected to the network can easily update Excel or Word docs and when connected they can be auto-synched with the existing docs on the server.”

Andrew Baker, director of Internet operations with the Princeton Review, says that while Windows 2000 hasn’t actually “revolutionized” mobile computing, it has made telecommuting a much more practical alternative for a lot of IT organizations.

“Windows 2000 Pro has certainly made it easier to have a secure, robust mobile platform, and many of the features that it provides have yet to be exploited: Group Policies and EFS, for instance,” he confirms.

At the same time, Baker confesses, he can’t help but look forward to the arrival of Windows XP, which he says will offer a variety of additional enhancements for mobile users, including an integrated firewall component and the ability to support multiple NIC configurations.

And Giga’s Enderle says that XP will also address some of Windows 2000’s most visible shortcomings as a platform for mobile computing.

“XP makes it easier to support and enable remote workers, because it deals with some of the difficulties of securing a remote solution,” he says.

“Particularly, it allows a much more resilient multi-user environment [with its support for a multi-user login screen], which helps with mobile users who you know let their kids or other family members use the computer.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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