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Article: Requiem for Windows XP

by on April 10, 2014

Earlier this week, Microsoft officially stopped supporting Windows XP. Although it continues to function as expected and is installed on millions of computers worldwide, it’s ancient—it came from an era before notable gadgets like the iPod or RAZR, where a computer was truly the only way to get real work done. Considering all of this, it is truly amazing how the Windows XP’s customers kept it popular much longer than most computer operating systems typically last.

Windows XP

One Windows

I had been using Macs and PCs for a good chunk of the ’90s, and always felt that Apple had the edge on operating system quality. Even with OS 8 and OS 9 being a bit unstable, they still felt quite cohesive and when they crashed, it was often easily explained. Unless you were a business user, the PC operating system of choice was probably Windows 98, or its mediocre sequel, Windows Millennium Edition. Windows NT and 2000 were marketed towards enterprise users, offering stability and reliability, but missing support for certain services and devices.

Microsoft seemed to have fixed that with Windows XP—combining the core of Windows NT/2000 with the capabilities of Windows 98/Me for individuals, it seemed like a home run on paper. Gone was the shell over MS-DOS, and now the consumer and business operating systems were the same, although different versions were marketed in true Microsoft fashion.

Windows XP brought along some other new items, including product activation and a new interface. Gone was the drab and sharp look dating back to Windows 95, and in its place was a colorful, friendly interface that included cutting-edge graphical marvels, like alpha channels, drop shadows, and subpixel rendering. This was the version of Windows that was designed to look good on modern computer hardware. Of course, you could turn it all off and keep things in the style of older versions.

As far as system requirements go, Windows XP ran on systems with as little as 233MHz processors and 64MB RAM. Installing the operating system could happen under 2GB of space. Later 64-bit editions would require more processing power and memory, but were still far below the hardware that was sold at that time. In terms of today’s technology, a Google Chromecast has much more processing power than low-end Windows XP PCs.

Not Giving Up

The problem with Windows XP was that it was too good—despite some flaws and issues that were the norm with Windows, it found the right balance of capabilities, aesthetics, and resource usage. When Microsoft eventually released its replacement, Windows Vista, people were put off by an operating system that was slower, more cluttered, and didn’t really do much more than its predecessor. As businesses were one of Microsoft’s biggest customers, demand dictated that XP was still still offered as an option from many PC manufacturers.

When netbooks arrived on the scene, their hardware was often just a bit too modest for Windows Vista, or eventually 7. Due to its low system requirements, Windows XP was the perfect fit for these cheap, mini laptops. Although Microsoft wasn’t necessarily excited about it, XP was offered for these machines until 2011.

When Windows 7 arrived, many businesses were once again slow to upgrade—having been burned by Vista, Windows 7 was still scary and unknown. Fortunately 7 took the problems with Windows Vista and improved upon it, learning lessons from what worked with Windows XP. Once again, Microsoft found the balance of looks, capabilities, and resource usage.

The sad part is that the company has once again ran into Vista-like issues with Windows 8, seemingly backpedaling on its bold design. Many PC vendors have also continued to offer Windows 7 as an option.

Decline

Because of this ongoing support from third-party developers, Windows XP has hung around much longer than it should have. Although running Windows XP on a computer may seem a bit odd in 2014, you can still get Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Apple’s own iTunes for XP, and because of the ability to still play with modern web sites and services, XP doesn’t feel as dated as it could. Contrast that with Mac OS X 10.1, the comparable Mac operating system from XP’s initial launch, or Mac OS X 10.5, the version that was common when XP received its last service pack, and there’s a slew of software that simply won’t work. Because of the compatibility, Windows XP is still being run on over 30% of computers.

Although many XP- and Vista-era PCs have been replaced, some have simply been upgraded, especially in the business world. Blame the 2008 economic crisis or just that technology has plateaued, but PC manufacturers would love to have machines sold at their early-2000s levels. If these are still working “good enough” for corporate tasks, why replace them with something that is running Windows 8 and its scary learning curve?

Microsoft had to draw a line in the sand, though. By technically supporting four vastly different desktop operating systems at once, the company was spreading resources thin, especially in the scope of bug and security fixes. Surprisingly, Windows Vista will receive extended support until 2017, while Windows 7 will receive extended support until 2020. If it were me, I would have ended support on Vista and encouraged upgrades to 7 for many. In the world of OS X, Apple pushed users and developers to the most recent versions—provided hardware was compatible—by offering it inexpensively, and eventually free. Unless you’re running a really old Mac, there are few excuses not to be running OS X 10.9 Mavericks.

Legacy

In winding down Windows XP, there’s another category of devices still on XP—embedded installations. In the United States, 95% of ATMs run an embedded version of Windows XP. Although the media jumped on this as something for concern, Microsoft will be supporting a number of embedded versions of XP for the next few years.

Although I cover mostly Apple news, I found it worth noting the end of an era in the PC world. Windows XP is one of my favorite releases of Windows, partially due to it being great for running as a virtual machine, and because it felt the most organized. The fact that demand was able to keep it alive for so long is simply astounding, and certainly worth remembering, especially since Microsoft had a number of misses after its release. For the sake of progress though, I hope the company can either salvage Windows 8 or move on to Windows 9 quickly enough that Windows 7 will accomplish the same longevity.

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