If Only We Knew Then What We Know Now About Windows XP

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, September 24, 2006

Windows XP is turning five years old, but will anybody want to celebrate the occasion?

Microsoft's long-anticipated replacement for "Win 9x" -- the series of releases that began with Windows 95 and ended with Windows Millennium Edition --was never supposed to stick around this long. But half a decade after it began shipping on new computers (followed a month later by its retail debut), XP lingers.

In that time, this software has been Microsoft's most successful release ever in terms of sales. The research firm IDC estimates that about 485 million copies of XP, excluding pirated versions, had been installed by the middle of this year.

But XP has also become an apt demonstration of the difference between "popular" and "widely used." People use XP but don't love it. Why should they?

This operating system has needed a steady diet of patches to stay close to healthy. On a machine with a September 2001-vintage copy of Windows XP Home Edition, installing every bug-fix released as of August ballooned its Windows directory from 987 megabytes to 2.43 gigabytes.

You can think of Windows XP as a house with a second floor built of spackle, wood filler and duct tape.

And even with all those updates, the operating system has met only a few of its goals while falling short of others in a catastrophic manner. And it's done so for reasons that can't all be blamed on XP's design or Microsoft's own actions. That, in turn, means that its long-delayed replacement, Windows Vista -- now due to ship in January -- may run into the same problems.

Consider stability, the single biggest selling point of XP. The operating system was meant to stop individual programs from crashing the system, and it succeeded. It takes an especially malignant program to send my copy of XP to a "blue screen of death."

But that's not the only way XP can crash. Drivers, the software that lets XP communicate with hardware components, can still lock up the system. If you've seen an XP laptop fail to wake up from standby, you can probably blame it on buggy drivers.

Microsoft doesn't write most of that software, so it asked the companies that do to submit their work for its own testing. And if users tried to install an untested driver, Windows XP would flash an unmistakable don't-install-this warning.

You're probably familiar with that alert from seeing it all the time; many developers have ignored Microsoft's testing requirements. Users, in turn, have learned to treat XP's warning as an irrelevant nag.

Basically the same thing happened to Microsoft's attempts to clean up the look of Windows. Recall how simple a fresh installation of XP can appear, with only the recycle-bin icon on the desktop and a single column of programs in the Start Menu. (Yet even in that pristine state, XP makes you flip open three sub-menus to run such important tools as the System Restore fix-it utility.)

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