By Harry McCracken | Monday, October 24, 2011 at 10:44 pm
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.
January 17th: Microsoft announces that it’s sold over 17 million copies of Windows XP to date, on new PCs and as upgrades.
April 18th: Windows XP now comes preinstalled on nearly 60 percent of all PCs, says Microsoft.
July 16th: Microsoft announces Windows XP Media Center Edition, a separate version of XP (codenamed “Freestyle”) with features such as DVR capability and fancier music and photo tools, intended for living-room PCs hooked up to TV sets. The press release quotes a Microsoft exec:
“The PC has evolved from a tool for productivity to a device capable of entertainment, communications and so much more,” said Michael Toutonghi, vice president of the Windows eHome Division at Microsoft. “Consumers desire more fun and enjoyment from their PC and want it to contribute to their lives even more creatively than it does today. The time is right for Windows XP Media Center Edition; it maps to our vision of realizing potential with technology in ways people may not have thought possible.”
August 30th: Microsoft says it’s sold over 46 million copies of XP. It also announces it’s releasing XP Service Pack 1, with security fixes and changes decreed by its settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, such as the ability to remove Internet Explorer.
October 9th: Almost a year after XP’s launch, Microsoft is still trying to convince recalcitrant enterprise customers to upgrade from versions as musty as Windows 95:
“As I talk with IT managers, I’m hearing that they must justify their technology investments more than ever before,” said Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft. “With budgets tight, enterprises need to be confident of real returns before they invest in IT. Companies still on the Windows 95 or Windows 98 platforms are missing out on the incredible benefits that come with the combination of Windows XP and Office XP. Together they deliver more business value to our customers than any other solution available. And we’ll prove it!”
October 29th: Microsoft holds a launch party in New York’s Bryant Park for Windows XP Media Center. The celebrity guest: actor/comedian/Roseanne-ex Tom Arnold. (I guess the budget for that event was on the skimpy side.) “Lifestyle vignettes” show consumers enjoying the software in the living room, in a media room, and in a dorm. In a canned quote, analyst P.J. McNealy says that “Consumers are becoming more comfortable with the words ‘digital content,’ and the PC is helping enable that learning curve.”
November 7th: If it’s COMDEX, it is, once again, Tablet PC time. After two years of sneak previews, the first shipping models are announced, running a pen-enabled version of Windows XP:
“The launch of the Tablet PC marks an exciting new era of mobile computing that is limited only by the imagination of its users,” Gates said. “The Tablet PC is a great example of how computers are adapting to how people really work, whether they’re taking notes in a meeting, collaborating wirelessly with colleagues or reading on screen. We’re just scratching the surface of what is possible.”
If Bill Gates’ five-year prediction still holds true, it means that Tablet PCs should surpass garden-variety PCs by the end of 2007. Instead, it’s clear years before then that they’re very popular with a very small percentage of users, and nothing Microsoft might do to refine them is likely to change that.
January 8th: Windows Smart Displays ship. They’re another Microsoft take on tablet computing, and let consumers use a remote wireless touchscreen to access their Windows XP PC. They instantly flop and go away before many people know they exist in the first place. (That’s Microsoft’s Keith White demonstrating one at COMDEX 2002 in the photo to the right.)
March 23rd: Microsoft announces that it’s wrapped up work on “Microsoft® Windows® XP 64-Bit Edition Version 2003,” a version of XP for Intel’s doomed-to-be-not-very-successful Itanium platform. Even for Microsoft, that’s a clunky name.
August 11th: Vast numbers of users of XP (and Windows 2000) suddenly discover their PCs displaying an alarming message and then spontaneously rebooting themselves. And then doing it again. And again. A wily worm called Blaster turns out to be the culprit. Who knew it was possible for any piece of software–malicious or not–to do this?
November 17th: At COMDEX, Bill Gates shows off a new version of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. A year after Gates said he expected Tablets to take over the market within five years (which would have been 2007), Microsoft is still talking about them doing so in five years (now 2008, and it sounds less like a prediction and more like a goal).
January 12th: Shortly before support for Windows 98 was supposed to end, Microsoft decides to extend it–as well as support for Windows Me–until June 30th, 2006. The move is apparently made to placate customers who don’t want to upgrade to Windows XP anytime soon. “Better to have people stay on Windows 98 than to start investigating things like Linux,” analyst Michael Gartenberg tells Cnet.
April: Writing in PC World, Steve Manes says that he recently cornered Windows chief Jim Allchin at a press dinner and got him to commit to eliminating Rover the Search Companion from Longhorn, the next version of Windows. Worried that Allchin might not live up to the promise, Manes creates an e-mail address, [email protected], and asks fellow Rover haters to chime in.
August 6th: After multiple delays, Microsoft announces that it’s just about ready to release Windows XP Service Pack 2. For a service pack, it’s unusually meaty, containing not just bug fixes and security patches but also a built-in firewall, a pop-up blocker, better Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, more multimedia features, and other new stuff. Unlike a more mundane bundle of miscellaneous updates, it’s important enough to get a Bill Gates keynote, which he gives at the RSA security conference.
August 11th: In much of the world, Windows is unaffordable, and –despite its copy protection–widely pirated. Microsoft responds by creating Windows XP Starter Edition, a cut-rate version aimed at computing neophytes in countries such as Thailand, Brazil, and Russia. It can only run three programs at a time, a limitation that Microsoft says is no big deal to the people it’s meant for.
August 27th: One of the features that was supposed to make Longhorn a great leap forward beyond XP was WinFS–a new file system that Bill Gates had described as a “holy grail” in 2003. But it proves so tricky to implement that Microsoft decides to remove it from the new OS.
October 12th: At LA’s Shrine Auditorium, Microsoft introduces Windows XP Media Center 2005. The event includes some awkward conversation between Bill Gates and a celebrity who seems to be there only because she’s a celebrity: Queen Latifah. Bill and the Queen turn out to be like peanut butter and tomatoes: Two great tastes that don’t taste great together.
At the event, I’m briefed by HP on its new Media Center PC, which the company has connected to a TV set. The machine freezes, and for several minutes multiple HP executives can’t figure out what’s wrong. It turns out that Norton Anti-Virus is displaying a prompt, but we can’t see it because the Media Center interface is on top. I take it as a sign that Windows XP may not be quite ready for the living room.
October 13th: The New York Times’ David Pogue reviews–and mostly likes–the OQO Model 01, a Windows XP computer that fits in your pocket:
Its creators have blown the concept of the digital hub to smithereens, and given whole new meaning to the term pocket PC.
PC World’s Tom Mainelli is less excited by the OQO:
Input proved frustrating. Designed for thumb typing, the keyboard itself has a decent tactile feedback, but I found the placement of some keys odd–and the spacebar was too hard to reach with either thumb. I became fairly adept at using the TrakStick input device on the right side of the keyboard and the two mouse buttons on the far left, but I had less luck using the included stylus. More than once I found myself repeatedly tapping the touch-sensitive screen trying to get a program to respond.