P R O B A T E   &   P R O P E R T Y
July/August 2002
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Technology—Probate

Technology—Probate provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the probate and estate planning areas. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.

Windows XP

The last “Technology—Probate column described some “bleeding edge” technology in the form of the Linux operating system. This column will describe a more mainstream solution for those who want a more stable operating system. That solution is the Windows XP operating system and that has been released by Microsoft (of all people). Yes, Microsoft has finally released an operating system that is worth buying and worth using and that actually lives up to some of the hype of the Microsoft marketing machine.

Windows XP Improvements

Although Windows XP is being marketed to the home and small office user as a successor to Windows 95/98/ME (also known as Windows 9x), Windows XP is really a very different operating system. Despite the claims of Microsoft, Windows 9x was still based on DOS, like Windows 3.1, which meant that Microsoft was still trying to build a 32-bit, multi-tasking operating system on top of a 16-bit, single-tasking operating system. Windows XP is based on the Windows NT kernel, and not DOS, so it is fundamentally more like Windows NT/2000 than it is like Windows 9x. This change has led to a number of improvements in the operation of Windows XP.

More stable. Microsoft always promises stability, and this time it may have actually delivered something close to what it promised. Compared to Windows 9x, Windows XP is as solid as a rock. My own experience was that I often had to reboot Windows 9x because it had frozen, crashed, or otherwise become unstable, sometimes two or three times in a day. Since installing Windows XP, I have not had to reboot even once and have often left my computer running for several days without any problems at all. Twice I have run into problems with applications that had to be shut down, but both times I could continue running other applications without any difficulty.

Better multitasking. There are different ways to divide processor time among different applications, and the method used by Windows 9x often resulted in some applications running slowly in the foreground while applications in the background did nothing at all very quickly. Windows XP allocates processor time among applications much more effectively and efficiently, with the result that less processor time is wasted and most applications seem to run faster. For example, receiving a fax in the background often slowed the foreground application to a crawl under Windows 9x, but receiving a fax under Windows XP does not seem to affect the foreground application at all.

One of the major bottlenecks of Windows 9x was the allocation of “system resources,” which was a fixed block of memory that had to be shared by applications and could not be significantly enlarged, even by adding additional memory cards to the computer. Trying to run more than six or eight applications under Windows 9x would frequently exhaust the system resources, particularly for resource hogs like Timeslips and Quattro Pro, resulting in system crashes or applications that refuse to run. The system resource bottleneck has been eliminated by Windows XP, and it is possible to run more applications simultaneously without encountering any noticeable problems. I have had no problems running 10 or 12 applications on the same computer that used to balk at half that many applications.

The combination of these factors means that Windows XP runs most applications faster, and users spend less time having to deal with reboots and system failures.

Installation

Installing a new operating system on an existing computer is always a scary experience because it is possible for the new operating system to fail and yet be unable to restore the old operating system, leaving you with a computer that usually cannot be made operable without reformatting the hard drive and erasing all of its applications, documents, and information. Needless to say, do not try installing a new operating system without doing a complete backup of the existing system.

Despite all of the things that can go wrong, my experience (and the experiences I have read about and heard about) is that the installation of Windows XP is usually quick, uncomplicated, and relatively painless. I was asked very few questions, and the questions I was asked were easy to answer. After the new operating system was installed, my desktop, start menus, and startup applications were pretty much as they had been before, and most of my applications could be run immediately after the system was finished installing.

Compatibilities

At the end of the installation process, the Windows XP setup program provides a list of all of the applications that might not work or need to be upgraded to run under the new system. Most of my practice-specific software, such as tax calculation and projection software, estate administration software, document drafting, tax research, and tax return software ran fine under Windows XP. The problems I have encountered thus far were almost all in software that is needed to work with specific peripherals, such as printers, scanners, and CD drives. These problems fell into one of three different categories.

Some applications just needed to be reinstalled. This is not a problem unless the program has to be uninstalled before it can be reinstalled and you run into a problem uninstalling. That is exactly what happened to me with the Paperport software that comes with Visioneer scanners. Because the printer driver that “prints” to the Paperport desktop had to be reinstalled, I could not uninstall the software, and ultimately I had to uninstall the program manually, using instructions I downloaded from Scansoft (which makes the Paperport software).

Some applications just need a new driver or a patch that can be downloaded from the vendor. For example, I downloaded a new driver for my HP Laserjet 4000 printer, and also had to download a new “wizard” to get my computer to recognize the printer through the network. If you go looking for a new driver and there is no driver for Windows XP, you will probably need the Windows NT/2000 driver and not the Windows 95/98 driver.

Some applications will not work at all (or at least not the version you own) and will have to be upgraded to a more recent version. I had to replace the Adaptec (now Roxio) DirectCD software that I use to manage CD-R and CD-RW drives and the rather old version of WinFax Pro that I had been using.

Irritations

Windows XP is hardly perfect, and most of my complaints to date relate to “features” that Microsoft has decided to include.

One great fear has been that the registration process that Microsoft has designed will cause problems if a computer crashes, hardware is added, or a user needs a new computer with the same version of the operating system. In the past, there was no way for Microsoft to know if a copy of an operating system was installed onto more than one computer. Windows XP goes through a process that records the essential features of the computer on which it is installed and sends that information to Microsoft. If the same copy is installed onto a different computer, or if there is a change to the hardware that is significant enough to confuse the registration process, Windows XP will refuse to run. The user will have to contact Microsoft to get permission to reinstall Windows XP, and presumably Microsoft will require some explanation as to why the system is being reinstalled. Many people believe that this could be a nightmare if a computer refuses to run and Microsoft refuses to allow reinstallation, but there have been no published reports of any problems so far.

A strange annoyance is that Microsoft has moved the default directory for most user files. I finally gave up and went along with Microsoft’s idea that all of my word processor documents, spreadsheets, and other data files should be in subdirectories under a directory called “My Documents.” Because Windows XP is designed to be accessible to multiple users, each with their own password, desktop, and other settings, Microsoft has moved “My Documents” into a subdirectory for each user. Accordingly, the full path for the directory has changed from “c:\My Documents” to “c:\Documents and Settings\Daniel B. Evans\My Documents.” That path name is so long that, in many of my applications that show the full path in a small box, the end of the path name extends past the right edge of the box, and I really have no way of knowing what I am seeing or where it is.

Microsoft has also decided that it knows what we want to do better than we know, and so some procedures that were a simple DOS command, or a somewhat awkward process under Windows 9x, have become seemingly impossible, or at least hidden behind a barrage of icons, menus, and “wizards” that are often more of an obstruction than a help. At the very least, having to re-learn how to navigate through the system is an annoyance that most of us could have forgone.

Conclusion

Most offices that are presently running Windows 95/98/ME will probably benefit from a switch to Windows XP, assuming that the computers have enough processor speed and memory to be able to take advantage of the improvements in Windows XP. Windows XP comes in two flavors, a “Home” version and a “Professional” version, and the Professional version is recommended for any office with any kind of networking. Offices already using a version of Windows NT, such as Windows 2000, should probably not try to switch to Windows XP, if for no other reason than that Microsoft does not recommend it.

Technology—Probate Editor: Daniel B. Evans, P.O. Box 27370, Philadelphia, PA 19118, dan@evans-legal.com

 

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