The Life and Times of Windows XP

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If you’d been alive in 1924 and had enjoyed the comedy stylings of a young Vaudevillian named George Burns, you never would have believed he’d still be packing them in seventy years later. In 1963, you might have dug the music that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were making, but the idea they’d still be touring almost forty-five years later would have sounded insane. Those of us who watched Dennis Eckersley pitch for the Red Sox in 1978 would have scoffed at the notion that he’d be playing for Beantown once again in 1998.

And then there’s Windows XP. The press release announcing its release on October 25th 2001 called it “Microsoft’s Best Operating System Ever.” A decade later, so many people still agree with that assessment that it remains the planet’s most pervasive desktop operating system.

Nobody would have been prescient enough to predict that Windows XP would be flourishing so many years after its debut. Not Microsoft. Not consumers and businesses. Not the analysts who get paid to know where technology is going. And certainly not me.

No single factor explains XP’s astonishing longevity. The most obvious one, of course, is the failed launch of 2007′s Windows Vista, an upgrade so lackluster that many PC users simply rejected it, instinctively and intelligently. But I think you also have to give XP credit for being just plain good, especially once Microsoft released Service Pack 2 in 2004. And desktop operating systems, from any company, simply aren’t as exciting as they were in the 1990s; people are less likely to want a new one every couple of years, and more likely to drive the one they’ve got into the ground.

For all these reasons, Windows XP endures. I find that fascinating and oddly inspiring, even though I much prefer Windows 7 and heartily recommend it over XP.

To celebrate XP’s first ten years, I decided to trace its history–the ups, the downs, the successful updates and failed variants, the launch events starring Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and the general progression of events that led to XP still mattering today. Return with me now to 2000–a year when the dominant version of Microsoft’s operating system was Windows 98, and plenty of people still ran Windows 95…

October 31st: Microsoft quietly ships a beta of “Whistler,” the next version of Windows to 200,000 beta testers. As the first version of Windows to merge the 9.x consumer and NT-based business versions, Whistler is by definition going to be a milestone. If it works, it’ll be both rock-solid and user-friendly. InfoWorld’s report says it’s supposed to ship in final form in the first half of 2001.

November 12th: At his traditional COMDEX keynote in Las Vegas, Bill Gates shows off a prototype Tablet PC, running an early version of Whistler. He refuses to talk about prices, ship dates, or hardware partners, but rumor has it that the machines could show up by the spring of 2001.

February 4th: Microsoft announces the official names for Whistler and the next version of Office: Windows XP and Office XP. (At one point, rumor had it that the next Windows might be called Windows 2001.) The “XP” apparently stands for “Experience.”

Nine days later, at an event at Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project in Seattle, Bill Gates formally unveils Windows XP, providing a peek at the slick new interface, which suggests that the Windows design team has been looking at Apple’s next-generation software, OS X.

A Microsoft press release, as usual, describes the changes in grandiose terms:

Windows XP, built on the enhanced Windows 2000 engine, features a fresh new look and extends the personal computing experience by uniting PCs, devices and services like never before. Windows XP also represents an important step in delivering on the Microsoft .NET vision. The Windows XP-based PC will be at the center of the .NET experience, empowering people to move beyond disconnected applications, services and devices to complete computing experiences that redefine the relationship between people, software and the Internet.

Microsoft’s press release features sound bites from the CEOs of two then-major industry players: Compaq (which went on to be gobbled up by HP in 2002) and Circuit City (folded in 2009).

March 26th: Microsoft says it’s distributing Windows XP Beta 2 to half a million testers.

May 9th: Despite ugly rumors that Microsoft is going to delay the release of Windows XP until 2002, the company says it’s on track to finish it up on schedule. In fact, it announces a launch date–October 25th, 2001.

August 24th: Microsoft completes work on Windows XP and hands it off to PC makers in a manner that sounds a trifle melodramatic:

In an event today on the Microsoft main campus, Bill Gates and Jim Allchin presented the final Windows XP “gold code” to representatives from six major PC manufacturers. Commemorative CDs containing the final Windows XP software were placed into six gold ZERO Halliburton P5 attaché cases, and the representatives immediately departed via helicopters to begin the final stages of incorporating the new operating system into their computer manufacturing systems.

(What, they couldn’t have transferred the bits over a T1 line or something?)

The company also announces XP’s versions and prices. There are two: Windows XP Home ($199 full version, $99 upgrade) and Windows XP Professional ($299 full, $199 upgrade).

August 30th: Microsoft says that Windows’ ongoing antitrust issues in Europe won’t delay the release of Windows XP.

October 25th: Windows XP is here! No, that’s not me waxing enthusiastic. It’s the title of Microsoft’s press release trumpeting the OS’s official debut.

Deciding to stick with plans it hatched long ago, the company holds the XP launch event in New York City, at the Marquis theater in Times Square–and it’s doing so just six weeks after 9/11. Security is extremely high and the mood is understandably subdued. And the most memorable part of the event doesn’t have anything to do with Windows XP. It’s an unannounced appearance by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who joins Bill Gates and thanks Microsoft for holding the event as planned. I think Rudy’s entrance is still the most electrifying moment I’ve ever witnessed at a tech-related event. (I took the photo at right with my circa-2001 digital camera.)

The event isn’t completely serious though, and, like most Windows launches, it isn’t trouble free. In this case, the levity is provided by special guest Regis Philbin, and the glitch happens when a Webcam demo involving Reege (in the theater) and Bill Gates (outside in Times Square) goes awry. I capture the aftermath with the so-so video capability on my camera.

Despite the technical gremlins, Philbin claims to be impressed. “It really knocks you out,” he raves. “I guess the people who are more familiar with it are really impressed, and I am too, but I must tell you, there’s a lot to learn–but it’s easier this time to learn it.” In retrospect, that’s an oddly accurate analysis of Windows XP.

How do reviewers react to XP’s release? David Pogue of The New York Times is a fan:

No matter what you think of Microsoft, using Windows XP on a new or very recent PC feels sure, swift and satisfying. And that’s a big deal.

But The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg is wary of multiple aspects of the new OS, including its copy protection:

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this good news. Microsoft has burdened Windows XP with new restrictions and requirements for use. Every Windows XP PC must go through a process called “activation,” either at the factory or by the user, that allows Microsoft to gather and store a profile of each computer, and block each copy of XP from being used on a second computer. An activated copy of XP tracks which PC it is on, and can shut down if your hardware configuration changes too much.

The company has also turned Windows XP into a sort of Trojan horse. It has built in a bunch of “features,” such as instant messaging, online photo printing and a “passport” to the Web, that are just blatant efforts to lure consumers into using a set of new Web-based services Microsoft is launching, while ignoring alternative services that may be better. The goal seems to be to trap users in a sort of Microsoft company store.

Steve Manes of Forbes also doesn’t accentuate the positive:

As usual, Microsoft will try hard to convince you that its older stuff is basically crap–which many users will have little trouble believing. But if your current computer is working well, XP offers no compelling reason to replace it. And XP offers plenty of compelling reasons to avoid “upgrading” existing machines.

The time to join the Windows XP bandwagon is when your old machine has simply outlived its usefulness–and after Microsoft delivers the bug fixes that inevitably arrive several months after the original ship date. By November computers with XP preinstalled will be virtually the only Windows units you can buy, and within a year or so the computer world will no doubt be thoroughly XP-ified. Then you can upgrade your computer and peripherals with a lot less worry about “Broken Things.”

Amazingly, the default version of one prominent new feature of Windows XP–its “Search Companion”–features a warmed-over version of Rover, the dog who hosted Microsoft Bob, the short-lived, legendarily-wrongheaded 1995 “user-friendly” Windows shell. Even after Bob’s demise, even after Office 97′s Clippy is universally mocked, Microsoft still thinks that people–including users of the corporate-oriented Windows XP Professional–want adorable animated characters to be their software gurus.

The company, which had famously secured the rights to the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” to promote Windows 95, turns to Madonna this time. Her song “Ray of Light” plays in TV commercials as XP users soar about like Christopher Reeve in Superman. (As one moment in the commercial below indicates, this was an era when simply connecting to a wireless network was plausibly something that might amaze TV viewers.)

November 6th: Retail research firm NPD Intelect estimates that retailers sold 300,000 copies of Windows XP in the first three days–behind the very popular Windows 98 but ahead of ill-fated Windows Me.

November 11th: For the second COMDEX in a row, Bill Gates previews Tablet PCs, running a special version of the OS now known as Windows XP. He makes a famous, famously inaccurate prediction:

“The PC took computing out of the back office and into everyone’s office,” Gates noted. “The Tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I’m already using a Tablet as my everyday computer. It’s a PC that is virtually without limits – and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.”

(A decade later, I’m wondering: Does Bill Gates still use a Tablet PC as his main machine?)

December 19th: Cnet’s Joe Wilcox reports that while retails sales of XP are sluggish, it seems to be doing well overall.

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