The long life of Windows XP

Over the course of its life, Microsoft made Windows XP a much better operating system. Service Pack 2, released in 2004, was a major overhaul of the operating system. It made the software better able to handle modern systems, with improved WiFi support and a native Bluetooth stack, and made it far more secure. The firewall was enabled by default, the bundled Internet Explorer 6 gained the “gold bar” popup blocker and ActiveX security feature, and for hardware that supported it, Data Execution Protection made it more difficult to exploit software flaws.

 

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Microsoft also produced a number of variants of the base operating system. The two major ones were Windows XP Media Center Edition and Windows XP Tablet Edition. These were efforts to push Windows into new kinds of market—the TV-connected home theater PC, and the pen-powered tablet—though neither met with any great commercial success, and for Windows Vista, their features were rolled into the core product rather than shipping as standalone versions.

But in many ways, the thing that cemented Windows XP’s status wasn’t Windows XP itself: it was the lack of any successor. Microsoft’s Longhorn project, an ambitious plan to radically rework Windows, with an all-new set of APIs and a database-like filesystem, was delayed and ultimately abandoned entirely. Windows Vista, a massively scaled back, more conservative release, eventually arrived in 2006, but by this time Windows XP had become so dominant that users, particularly business users, didn’t want a new operating system. That Windows Vista had trouble in its early days, thanks to its steeper hardware demands, its polarizing appearance, and display driver issues—mirroring, in many ways, Windows XP’s own introduction—just served to entrench Windows XP further. Business users stuck with Windows XP, and Windows Vista struggled to ever make a serious dent in its predecessor’s market share, peaking at just 19 percent in the final days before Windows 7’s release.

Had Windows Longhorn been more successful, and had Windows Vista arrived sooner, Windows XP’s market share dominance would never have been achieved. Windows 7, though well-received and widely liked, will be lucky to hit 50 percent market share before its replacement, Windows 8, hits the market (assuming Microsoft manages to avoid any development disasters). With a new operating system coming out every two to three years, which is Microsoft’s plan, there simply isn’t enough time to amass that much market share.

Long in the tooth it may be, but Windows XP still basically works. Regardless of the circumstances that led to its dominance and longevity, the fact that it remains usable so long after release is remarkable. Windows XP was robust enough, modern enough, well-rounded enough, and usable enough to support this extended life. Not only was Windows XP the first (and only) PC operating system that lasted ten years: it was the first PC operating system that was good enough to last ten years. Windows 98 didn’t have the security or stability; Windows 2000 didn’t have the security or comfort; Mac OS X 10.1 didn’t have the performance, the richness of APIs, or the hardware support.

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