Windows XP, Microsoft Corp.’s beloved seventh major operating system and arguably the company’s most successful, was left to perish on Tuesday at its creators’ hands. It was 12 years, seven months old.
For now, Windows XP will persist in brain-dead stasis on literally millions of PCs, including those of customers who have either ignored, or were never aware of, Microsoft’s decision to pull the plug. Although the software may physically remain on PCs worldwide, Microsoft has stopped supporting it, leaving Windows XP vulnerable to any unpatched security holes that may arise going forward.
Windows XP’s funeral, a private ceremony held deep within Microsoft, was quiet. In lieu of flowers, Microsoft urged customers to donate to Windows 8, one of Windows XP’s grandchildren. Office 2003 also quietly passed away, to less fanfare.
Windows XP gave way to three more generations of Microsoft software—Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8—and Microsoft has urged customers to adopt its more modern operating systems, which it says offer more security and a more modern look and feel. “Honestly,” Microsoft’s WindowsXP.com Web site read Monday, “it’s time for a change.”
Except, for many, it isn’t. In March, for example, 27.7 percent of all desktop PCs tracked by NetApplications ran Windows XP. Put another way, Windows XP’s gaping vulnerability was that it was simply too good.
The operating system Microsoft got right
Windows XP launched on August 24, 2001. “Simply put, Windows XP is the best operating system Microsoft has ever built,” Bill Gates, the chief software architect at Microsoft, said at the time.
Previously, Microsoft had placed its enterprise operating systems and its consumer OSes onto separate tracks. Windows XP fused Windows 2000 with some of the best bits of Windows 98 and the short-lived Windows ME. It was also the end of Microsoft’s line of MS-DOS based operating systems, which Gates proclaimed as the “end of an era” during XP’s launch.
“It was certainly one of the strongest in terms of market appeal,” said Ross Rubin, who tracked Windows for NPD and Jupiter Communications before striking out on his own as an independent analyst. “What made XP really significant is that it brought together the reliability of the Windows NT kernel with the consumer friendliness and driver support of the consumer Windows line.”
For all of the vitriol directed at the Windows 8 Start page, an early build of “Whistler,” as Windows XP was known, reportedly included one, too. But the early build of Windows XP released to developers in 2000 eventually gave way to the two-column Start menu that both consumers and developers fell in love with. In fact, it was this new “experience,” code-named Luna, that gave Windows eXPerience its formal product name.
On August 24, 2001, at the company’s Redmond, Wash. campus, Microsoft handed out RTM copies of the new operating system to PC makers, who swooped off in helicopters bearing the Windows XP logo. While the first Windows XP devices were released on Sept. 24, the software was released to retailers on Oct. 25, accompanied by what some estimates put as a billion-dollar marketing campaign between Microsoft and its partners. That included a minute-long commercial set to Madonna’s “Ray of Light” (below)
Available in both Home and Professional versions, Windows XP would later be released in a 64-bit version, as well as a “Starter” edition for emerging markets. Special editions without Windows Media Player were later sold in Europe and Korea, after Microsoft was fined $784 million for exploiting its monopoly in operating systems to break into media players. Versions for so-called ULPCs (ultra low-cost PCs) and blade computers were also launched, as were specialized Media Center, server and embedded editions. That became significant, Rubin said, as many PCs simply lacked the available hardware to run Vista and successive operating systems.
But Windows XP quickly made friends with both consumers and professionals alike. Its signature “Bliss” desktop image of green, rolling hills became one of the most viewed photos in the world, and made photographer Chuck O’Rear the type of money paid for the famous shot of President Bill Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky. And if users didn’t like it, they could select from a number of other visual styles.
Under the hood, XP grouped multiple windows of the new Internet Explorer 6 and other applications together, and offered a task-based focus that facilitated common functions like CD burning. Prefetching was added to speed up load times. Windows XP added Internet Firewall and Remote Desktop functionality—and Windows Product Activation, as well. Windows XP persisted through three service packs, adding support for USB 2.0 as well as numerous additional improvements.
But technical underpinnings aside, what Windows XP did was introduce a new generation of PC users to the Web. What many forget was that the first Windows XP hardware launched just two weeks after the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001. The staggered launch—hardware first, then retail software sales—made the later release of Windows Vista seem stronger by comparison. And the richer, visual aesthetic came under fire, too, Rubin noted. But over time, users began to love their new OS.
The faithful speak
If Windows XP fans were all asked to speak about their favorite operating system, the line would be miles long. So in their place, I asked my father, Bob Hachman—a retired civil engineer who was dragged kicking and screaming into a world of ATM cards and pagers, and now smartphones—to speak for the majority. (Ian Paul asked other members of the Windows XP faithful for their reflections.)
“For what we wanted, it’s been absolutely perfect,” my father said, “It’s been very easy to use. We’ve had no problems with it. It’s been very user friendly, from what I can see.”
My parents’ use of Windows XP is fairly simple: some Web use, Excel spreadsheets, some basic financial planning. And as for security, well, I apparently failed as a geeky son.
“No, we just use it for very basic Internet use,” my father told me, when I asked him if he had set up his machine for downloading patches and other updates. “I don’t even know what a patch is.” Ulp.
What Windows XP offered was a simple, yet broad package to help users accomplish the basic tasks they wanted when they decided to buy a PC: Surf the Web, use Office and some gaming software, and hook up a broad range of USB peripherals. Software developers also had but two major platforms to choose from—Windows and Mac—and mobile apps were years away. Once Mac users jumped to OS X, both Microsoft and Apple pulled their older browsers.
To date, however, both Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox still support XP, allowing XP users to access the Web’s modern sites. And my father still really has no reason to move. “Everything that’s new—when it comes out, there are horror stories,” he said.
Windows XP totaled 45 million lines of code, the work of hundreds of Microsoft programmers. It will be missed.
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As PCWorld's senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.