Mainly just a pretty face

Windows XP likely to have little effect on Web-site operations

I've just returned from a Seattle press briefing at which Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Group Vice President, Platforms Product Group, Jim Allchin briefed a largely skeptical audience of journalists and analysts on the new Windows XP operating system.

"Certainly, this is the most important Windows release since Windows 95," an ebullient Gates told the gathering. The new operating system should appear on new PCs from most manufacturers sometime this fall.

I got to play with XP, and the best things I can say about it is that it has a pretty interface and is easier for inexperienced users to operate than older operating systems. The commands for various functions are organized into logical groups of tasks, with attractive icons clearly pointing the path. It will be easier for the home user to run multiple applications, such as a quick check of your e-mail while your kids play computer games.

Bringing digital photos to a PC and then editing or e-mailing them will be easier. Windows Media Player looks more handsome than in previous iterations and, as eye candy, is far more attractive than the cluttered user interface of arch-rival RealPlayer. The new Windows Media Player's user-friendliness may well make some inroads into RealPlayer's market domination, making it necessary for you to encode your Web site's streaming video in the Windows Media Player format, as well as RealPlayer.

Aside from that, the new XP should have little other direct effect on your station or program Web site. With an interface that is easier to use than the current crop of Windows 98 and Windows Millennium Edition PCs, the new OS (operating system) will be directed at consumers.

However, you should not be fooled into believing that momentum toward a new operating system comes from the ground up. That hasn't happened since the leap forward from the primordial Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 way back when.

Upgrade packages are commonly available to install the new system on an existing PC, but the upgrade procedure itself can be balky and buggy, beyond the perceived competencies of non-experts. Unless the upgrade is truly revolutionary
-and this Windows ME to Windows XP is evolutionary
-few consumers will buy a new PC simply because it comes with the new operating environment.

That is where Microsoft excels. By persuasion-and, arguably, by stronger measures-the company convinces most PC manufacturers that they must include the latest system in new computers. In fact, last week's dog-and-pony show featured taped testimonials from Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Compaq President and CEO Michael Capellas that, indeed, their machines would be preloaded with XP, beginning this fall. Gates added that most of the other manufacturers are on board, too.

This will play out, I think, in a "wag-the-dog" scenario. People will not buy a PC or upgrade their existing computer because
of XP; they will buy a new machine when they are ready to, and XP will happen to run it.

"There is a lot of flash [in XP], but the consumer will need to be persuaded this is a must-have experience," Gartner Group Research Director, Personal & Distributed Technologies, Chris Le Tocq, told me after the demonstration.

In his view, the unveiling of XP several months before its general release was largely a defensive measure, indicating Microsoft's competitive and artistic concerns about the new Mac OS 10 computing platform, which blew everyone away when it was introduced by Apple CEO Steve Jobs at the Macworld trade show last month.

No surprise there. The reaction on the faces of the computer-trade press last week was the same "give me a break" that I saw at the unveiling of Windows 95. Generally, those who write mostly about computing tend to consider Microsoft a master marketer but a non-innovator. A pro-Mac and pro-open-source (Linux) bias is pervasive among the digerati.