Robert Hampton

Another visitor! Stay a while… stay forever!

9th April 2014


Windows XP boot screen

In October 2001, Microsoft was at the height of its power. Internet Explorer had crushed its rivals in the browser wars; Apple (pre-iPod revolution) was struggling with its early, incomplete version of OS X; and Google was just a search engine.

It was amidst this backdrop that Windows XP was unleashed on an unsuspecting world, as Bill Gates excitedly announced the end of the MS-DOS era. Up to this point, most consumer-grade Windows PCs still ran the ageing command line system under the hood. This provided excellent backwards compatibility, but also introduced instability; a rogue DOS program or driver could bring down the whole system.

XP, however was free of this baggage. It took the best features of the previous “home user” systems such as Windows 98 and blended them with the much more stable and secure Windows NT kernel. DOS existed only on an emergency boot floppy disc (kids, ask your parents).

Keen to get the new OS in front of as many people as possible, Microsoft launched what was probably their biggest marketing push since Windows 95, six years earlier. This bizarre advert, with a Madonna soundtrack, demonstrated XP’s ability to, er… make its users fly.

Not satisfied with mere adverts, Microsoft’s head honcho headed to the studios of KACL for an excruciating cameo on “Frasier”.

Now, however, all that Microsoft marketing money is being spent to convince you that XP is bad and you’re bad for using it. 8th April 2014 marked the official “end of support” for Windows XP; Microsoft is no longer providing patches or security fixes, which means that users will become vulnerable to new viruses and hacking attacks.

If the statistics are to believed, there are still a lot of XP users out there. According to The Register, XP had 27 per cent market share at the end of March. So why are so many people refusing to upgrade? There are corporate users who don’t want the hassle of upgrading thousands of machines (including the British government, which is spending £5.6 million on extended XP support from Microsoft) but why are home users so reluctant to switch?

Here’s my theory: XP came along at a time when computers were hitting the mainstream in a big way, and the new OS itself probably helped to drive that process. XP wasn’t just for geeks, office workers or teenagers in their bedrooms looking at porn doing their homework. This was an OS that could sit in the living room next to the stereo and DVD player. For many families, it may have been their first exposure to computing and the internet; it’s what they’re familiar with, it still works for them, and they see no reason to change.

It’s also worth remembering that XP, though dated by today’s standards, is not a terrible product. Granted, the early years weren’t too hot – old, badly-written Windows 9x software often refused to work, and there were many notorious security breaches. However, with Service Pack 3 installed, you have a system that is stable and useable and does everything a typical user would want. Want to send some e-mails, do some web browsing, and maybe type a few letters? XP can do all that perfectly well, even today. Internet Explorer isn’t supported past version 8 (released in 2009), but if you want a modern browser, the latest versions of Firefox or Chrome will run.

In a way, Microsoft were almost too successful with Windows XP – it’s powerful enough and stable enough that even now, twelve years later, it’s sufficient for many people’s purposes. Upgrading to a current system such as Windows 7 or 8 will require either an OS upgrade DVD or (more likely) a brand-new computer – a big outlay that many people may not be able to justify. The other alternative, Linux, is still an unknown quantity to most people, which discourages switching (although for reasonably competent computer users, it’s a viable option).

This reluctance to upgrade may be the reason why Microsoft has recently added (via a Windows Update download) dire warnings of the plague and pestilence that will befall any user who defies the deadline and continues using XP after 8th April 2014.

Windows XP End of Support warning dialogue box

Due to my stubborn dedication to RISC OS throughout the 90s, XP was actually the first version of Windows I used on a regular basis. It became my main OS in 2002 and I used it for several years until I got a Vista machine in 2007. For a few years after that, I still had a little XP netbook (indeed, XP survived for longer on netbooks, as Microsoft recognised that Vista was simply too resource-hungry to run adequately on them).

The screenshots below are all taken from a copy of Windows XP Service Pack 3, which I have installed specifically for the purposes of this blog post. I’m running it inside VirtualBox on my Mac.

Let’s take a nostalgic look back at what the future looked like back in 2001…

Installing XP - An Exciting New Look

Note that we are promised “An exciting new look” with a “task-oriented design”, whatever that means. Incidentally, I can confidently say that a 2012 iMac is excellent hardware for running Windows XP: it absolutely flies along. The installer said it would take 40 minutes, but actually finished in just over five minutes (including the time it took me to fill in all the dialogue boxes).

What were these appealing colo(u)rs that the install screen mentioned? Well…

Windows XP desktop

So there you are – a pristine Windows XP desktop, with the default wallpaper Bliss, which may be the most well-known photo of a hill ever seen. I remember Windows XP being derided for its appearance at first. Lots of people remarked that the default wallpaper looked like the hill where the Teletubbies lived, while the chunky, brightly coloured window icons resembled something from a Fisher-Price toy. However it seemed popular with a lot of people, and the purists could set their desktop to “Windows Classic” theme to revert to the grey Windows 9x look.

Microsoft redesigned the desktop slightly from earlier versions, moving icons such as “My Computer” and “My Documents” to the Start Menu. This was supposed to give a neat, clean look, but most computer manufacturers insisted on preinstalling a whole load of useless software, meaning that the desktop was cluttered with icons for “Photomatic Picture Edit Express v3.0” and the like.

Even though I’m running in a virtual machine, antivirus software is a must, so I went to Microsoft’s web site to download Security Essentials:

It's time to upgrade your browser

Yes, even Microsoft now thinks Internet Explorer 6 is rubbish. The bug-ridden browser was full of security vulnerabilities and its myriad quirks caused headaches galore for web developers. It regularly (and deservedly) featured in lists of worst tech products of all time, but dominated the internet landscape as many users never installed anything other than the default browser – indeed, many users didn’t know that other browsers existed.

Microsoft refuses to allow you any further until you download IE8. So, time to head over to Windows Update.

Windows Update

134 “high priority” security updates, there. I installed all of these and rebooted. Upon running Windows Update again, a further 36 security updates were offered to me, presumably to fix the problems found in the first 134 security updates. Among those 170-odd downloads was IE8, and once that was installed, I was allowed to access

With all that out of the way, I was finally able to successfully install Security Essentials. It still runs, and Microsoft promises that the virus signatures will continue to be updated on XP machines for at least a year, but that alarming red X again warns that you are playing with fire by continuing to run XP. Not sure I approve of this “scare you into upgrading” tactic.

Security Essentials

Elsewhere, does anyone remember “Search Companion”? XP had much more powerful search facilities than previous versions of Windows, making it easier to find exactly where you’d saved that crucial LOLcat picture. Microsoft, for reasons which I never quite understood, decided that what this search facility needed was a cartoon dog to guide you through the process.

Windows XP Search Companion

This little animated character is the cousin of Clippy from Microsoft Office, and uses the same code. It’s strange that Microsoft chose to use it here, especially as Office XP, released at the same time, made a big deal about removing Clippy. Maybe the Office and Windows marketing teams didn’t speak to each other.

Elsewhere in embarrassments: here’s good old Outlook Express. If IE6 is the worst tech product of all time, then Outlook Express must be in the top 10 somewhere. HTML format e-mails that unquestioningly execute embedded Javascript – what could possibly go wrong? These security problems were patched or worked around in later versions, but the application itself remains a very unsatisfying experience.

The “Welcome” message, which appears in the Inbox when you open the program for the first time, is full of adverts – mainly for services which no longer exist such as Hotmail and InfoBeat.

Outlook Express

Speaking of services which no longer exist, here’s a screenshot from Windows Messenger inviting us to link a .NET Passport to Windows. This was the forerunner of the “Microsoft Account” which is still used today to sign into various Microsoft services. I have a vague memory that Microsoft tried to develop the Passport as a sort of universal login for third party web sites – I remember using my account to sign into eBay for a while – but that aspect fell by the wayside at some point.

Windows Messenger and .NET Passport

Messenger evolved into the more fully featured MSN Messenger. This was later renamed Windows Live Messenger, which everyone still called MSN anyway. I really miss Messenger – its distinctive “new message” sound (badada!) enlivened many an evening for years, until Microsoft eventually discontinued the service in favour of Skype in 2013.

I’ve saved the best for last. My favourite feature of Windows XP has to be the bundled game, 3D Pinball – Space Cadet. I wasted far too much time on this game when I should have been working. It was removed from subsequent versions of Windows (apparently because of a bug that couldn’t be fixed) and it’s great to be able to play it again!

3D Pinball for Windows - Space Cadet

It’s not just Pinball: I may keep the virtual machine around (safely disconnected from the internet, of course) to play some old games on (if I can find my SimCity 3000 install disc). Apart from that, it’s time to say a fond farewell to XP. Its legacy will live on, at the very least through that “Moss rebooting” gag from The IT Crowd.

Windows is shutting down...

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments are closed.