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Why Are We So Happy With Windows XP? July 15, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
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If you’ve shopped for a PC anytime in the last couple of years, you’ve probably noticed that most of the vendors provide a “Windows XP downgrade license” as an option (oddly, usually for a nominal fee).  You can’t get a new PC with Windows XP, but you can pay for the privilege of removing Windows 7 and installing XP on it.

Now Microsoft is extending the availability of that downgrade license for another ten years, until 2020.  This is primarily for business customers, but in effect it means that many of us will be using XP far into the future, in the office if not in the home.

There are certainly reasons for this level of popularity of XP.  Businesses like maintaining a homogeneous computing environment, and XP is the lowest common denominator that works for many organizations.  Most experienced system administrators thoroughly understand XP, and gaining that level of skill for a new OS can take years.  Commercial software availability remains high.  Perhaps most important, it remains good enough for the vast majority of business computing uses.

There may be more insidious factors at work.  Microsoft’s software development model is predicated on Moore’s LawGordon Moore noted that the number of transistors on a processor was doubling approximately every eighteen months.  Over time, we’ve taken this to mean that processors are doubling in speed every eighteen months, and for a long time, that’s pretty much what happened.

Microsoft has made each successive operating system larger and arguably more feature-rich, knowing that Moore’s Law would keep up with its code bloat.  This worked until Windows Vista, which was so bloated that it couldn’t run well on any reasonable processor.  Microsoft learned that lesson and scaled back Windows 7, which appears to be more popular, but it’s not clear whether the damage can be undone.

(Arguably, the popular version of Moore’s Law also failed at this time, as processors got faster not through higher clock speeds or more complex pipelines, but rather through multiple processor cores, which Windows can’t effectively take advantage of.)

But the ultimate message is a frightening one – there is nothing that we (or more specifically, businesses) want to do with computers that we can’t do with XP.  There have been no drop-dead must-have applications for Vista and beyond, and few people feel that they absolutely need any of the new features.

For Microsoft, this is both a crowning success and an embarrassing failure.  Windows XP must be considered to be one of the most successful software products of all time, and Microsoft should be proud of its technical and business accomplishment.  But the fact that it has largely pushed aside later and more sophisticated replacements is strong evidence that something has gone very wrong.

It also means that the desktop OS innovations that began with Vista – most importantly the new user interface and underlying Windows Presentation Foundation – aren’t considered important enough to use Vista or Windows 7.

If anything heralds the end of the PC era, this is it.

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1. Why Are We So Happy With Windows XP? | World's Greatest T-Shirt - July 15, 2010

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