Microsoft's delay is your gain

At the beginning of this month, the press reported that Microsoft had set an internal deadline to ship the next version of its Windows client, codenamed Longhorn, by mid-2006. That's later than the company had once indicated. But assuming that Microsoft is able to meet that deadline, IT departments have an unprecedented opportunity to get their houses in order. They can focus on the issues that matter most to users, such as stability, reliability and security, and prepare properly for the next wave of upgrades down the road. Here are three important things to tackle:

Clean. First things first, and that's cleaning house. It's time for all of those old, 16-bit Windows (or DOS) applications to leave. They're a drag on systems, a nightmare to support and rife with stability and security problems.

Organize. A managed PC environment is much easier to support than an unmanaged one. Your administration tasks will become easier, your support costs will drop dramatically, and your change process for upgrades will allow smooth transitions when you're ready for them.

The key isn't so much creating a single desktop as it is focusing on the management aspects of your infrastructure to allow for updates, rollouts and other changes. There are a number of excellent products on the market to facilitate this, and likewise there's a litany of information available on how best to achieve this state. If you're not managing your architecture holistically, you're wasting cash.

Upgrade. This one's painful, but it's time to get off those older Windows operating systems, like 95, 98 and even 2000. You don't necessarily have to do this all at once, and a phased migration that gets you to Windows XP over the next several years as part of normal machine replacements will serve you well. Machines that are XP-capable should be upgraded. For them, focus your efforts on XP Service Pack 2 when it's released, to make sure you're getting the maximum benefit of XP along with the latest security fixes and enhancements.

Getting to XP also reduces pressure for short-term migrations to Longhorn in 2006. You'll have time to properly evaluate the benefits of the new operating system, you'll be able to give Microsoft the time it needs to get the kinks out, and you'll still deliver a compelling computing experience to your users.

Upgrading doesn't necessarily mean you stay with Windows, either. The next two years are a good time to evaluate where in your organization alternative operating systems might be appropriate. Although Linux still has a long way to go on the desktop, it's getting better and is appropriate under certain circumstances. Mac OS X is a reliable Unix-based alternative that can meet a number of business computing needs without creating an overly burdensome drain on support resources.

Meanwhile, look at new initiatives like the Tablet PC and focus on where such technologies can make an impact on your knowledge workers.

Every IT department faces two consistent challenges: to stay off the obituary pages and to every so often get in the headlines. The next two years present a huge opportunity for organizations to make some positive headlines and provide benefits for their users. Don't waste this time.

Michael Gartenberg is vice president and research director for the Personal Technology & Access and Custom Research groups at Jupiter Research

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