Two years after its launch, Windows XP is probably still on a minority of business desktops in the UK, according to recent research. Is it because users aren’t interested in it? Or is it because Microsoft itself still doesn’t give enough support to rolling out new products?

Two years after its launch, Windows 95 was pretty much ubiquitous but XP cannot say the same. Eleven percent of companies surveyed by research firm Vanson Bourne have completed the transition. The majority have some XP systems – if only on new systems bought in the last two years - but many have simply shrugged their shoulders and decided to ignore it. Only 24 percent have migrated even half their desktops. A similar number have no XP at all.

This massive thumbs-down from the corporate world does not mean that IT managers do not like XP. It has plenty of useful features, including improved patch management and remote control, which ought to make the helpdesk’s job easier. At its launch there was concern that the Product Activation anti-piracy software would make it harder to install and maintain, but Microsoft quickly allayed those fears.

The main problem seems to be one that really should not be an issue. For some years, every successive version of Windows has been promoted as more manageable than the last, to the extent that they should practically install and run themselves by now.

Yet 45 percent of the people that haven’t migrated told Vanson Bourne the reason was the complexity of the migration process and the time and resources it would require. These aren’t just the scaredy-cats who haven’t looked at the problems: people who were halfway through the upgrade said the same thing.

The fact is that despite a succession of tools from Microsoft that should automate the whole life-cycle of an operating system, from roll-out to retirement, most people are still doing it by hand. Other problems were the resources required to run the software and the cost.

“[Manual rollout] processes are antiquated,” said Rob Drew, strategic partner at ON Technology, a maker of management software, which commissioned the survey. “Sending an IT person to each desktop simply to upgrade the operating system, is much like getting people to hand deliver letters rather than using the post."

You will have guessed by now that ON has its own agenda here: promoting its own product, ON Command, which remotely handles Windows desktops. All the functions are integrated, so that it tracks assets and monitors changes to them – all remotely.

However, a look at ON’s product description reveals something interesting. There is nothing there that Microsoft itself hasn’t been promising for some years, in a series of announcements, starting with the “Zero Administration Initiative” launched back in 1997 and still helpfully archived on Microsoft’s site.

Zero Administration explicitly promised “automatic system update and application installation” and central administration. The results of this survey show a dismal failure – in the users’ eyes -- to deliver on this promise.

In an industry where vapour rules, Zero Administration was a particularly extreme example, and one where Microsoft’s goals were pretty obvious. 1997 was the year of Thin Clients. Users realised that managing Windows systems was costly and complex. Rival vendors talked about replacing those desktops with simple terminals under central control. In response, Microsoft promised to make it all better with a classic “pixie dust” announcement: ZAI.

Since then ZAI has been followed by a series of actual products for management, the current version being Systems Management Server (SMS), available in a new version this year, and backed up by a bunch of feature packs and related products. So why aren’t users satisfied?

According to ON’s Andy Warriner, Microsoft’s failure is deeply ironic. The battery of products and initiatives it has put up to deal with the complexity issue is simply too complex itself. ON Command has features like scheduled migration of PCs (twenty or thirty per hour). Microsoft may be able to match moves of the features, but not in one product. “Microsoft has a fragmented approach,” said Warriner. “It has a number of products for doing different things. Our product provides the whole end-to-end solution in a single product.” Microsoft has MSM, Microsoft Solutions for Management – a policy approach developed from its Microsoft Operations Framework Methodology. It has Software Update Services (SUS) which delivers patches.

Surprisingly enough, Microsoft agrees. Although keen to point out that there are many reasons why users might be delaying their upgrade, the company acknowledges that its management approach needs simplifying.

Product manager Janet Gibbons points out that operating system upgrades are often tied to hardware replacement, and that cycle has got longer. She expects a surge of Windows XP installations in the next year or so, as older desktops reach the end of their life. She believes that the free utilities and products available already do plenty, if users were more aware of them.

However, when TechWorld suggested that Microsoft’s management offering was simply too confusing, she agreed: “That is valid feedback.”

Of course, it will all be all right shortly, she said. Users can rest assured of that. “A roadmap will clear up the variety of products in future.”

However, that roadmap may give users a disturbing sense of déjà vu. It is based around a new programme called DSI (Dynamic Systems Initiative). Will that have more to offer than ZAI? Only time will tell.