The end is nigh for Windows XP with the world’s longest-suriving Windows operating system reaching the end of its extended support come April 8 this year. If you took a poll on which of the Microsoft’s OS releases over the last 20 years would become the most popular and longest lasting, you might’ve picked up good odds on XP, so after more than 12 years of solid service, here are some reasons I think why it’s lasted this long.
1. First 32-bit consumer/business OS
Okay this is a bit geeky but it’s the reason for XP’s initial success. Before XP’s release, Microsoft had a two-pronged OS strategy – 32-bit Windows NT for business and 16-bit Windows for consumers. The period between 1998 and 2001 saw Microsoft release four separate OSs, so you could be forgiven for thinking everyone was suffering OS overload by the time XP arrived. But XP was well anticipated, thanks to growing acceptance of 32-bit technology, the largely forgettable release of Windows Millennium Edition and the growing popularity of Windows 2000 amongst power users.
Windows XP became the first unified OS from Microsoft, aimed at business and consumers alike – it halved the work for system admins as well as system integrators, so from a professional viewpoint, it was a real no-brainer. For consumers, it came with new extras including Media Center Edition and provided support for the booming DVD player market.
Ultimately, Microsoft had the right OS at the right time.
2. Windows Vista
But Microsoft’s initial plan was to follow XP with project ‘Longhorn’ sometime in 2003. But delays and changes saw the launch date slip beyond 2004 and 2005. It wouldn’t be until January 30, 2007 that consumers would see Windows Vista in retail, a full five years after the release of Windows XP. Making matters worse, Windows Vista wasn’t winning over a legion of fans, least of all for its User Account Control (UAC), the ham-fisted security feature Apple parodied in one of its most popular ‘I’m a Mac and I’m a PC’ ads.
But Vista also incorporate significant changes elsewhere that in some cases required updated driver software. Not all manufacturers were willing to update drivers for gear approaching five years and old and those devices became instantly incompatible with Vista.
Taken together – XP’s stability and Vista’s unpopularity – it’s hardly surprising the XP market decided to stick with the tried and true.
3. ASUS and the netbook
By late 2007, Taiwanese PC maker ASUS was ready to take advantage of cheaper component prices and launch the first small-screen laptop that later became known as the netbook. A combination of cheap RAM, low-capacity flash storage and 7-inch screens saw the rapid rise of the low-cost portable computing device. However, the key component was the choice of operating system. ASUS initially launched its netbooks with a custom Linux operating system and some saw this as the opportunity Linux was waiting for to get before a mainstream audience.
Whether Microsoft called ASUS or ASUS called Microsoft is up for conjecture but it wasn’t long before ASUS switched out its Linux OS for Windows XP. The rumour was that Microsoft was offering bulk XP licences to ASUS (and subsequently to any other manufacturer who wanted them) for as little as $15 each, essentially sealing the fate of Linux netbooks. Microsoft clearly wasn’t ready to sell its current Vista OS for so little and Windows 7 wouldn’t be ready for another two years, so whatever did transpire, one thing is clear – long after everyone thought XP was dead, here it was in its second coming.
Ultimately, the netbook deal forced Microsoft on April 3, 2008 to extend the sales life of XP. The final copies of Windows XP were allowed to be sold/installed on October 22, 2010, one year after the release of Windows 7. The sales extension also forced the company to extend mainstream support for another year until April 8, 2009. The end of its extended period of support – essentially security patches – is what ends of April 8 this year.
4. Huge install base kept developers interested
According to reports, XP held onto the mantle of most popular Windows operating system worldwide until June 2012 – well over ten years after launch – when Windows 7 took over. Having such a popular OS by numbers helped ensure its long-term survival as it continued to be heavily supported by software developers. So not only did it have the license deals with PC manufacturers, it had the backing of major software developers, the two key factors keeping it alive. (Even if they wished they could ditch XP support, developers simply couldn’t ignore the sheer numbers of XP systems still around as potential customers.)
Ultimately, XP’s continued success continued to brew its future success as well.
5. Lean footprint
If nothing else, Windows XP was just a damn good piece of software. From its release in 2001, it picked up on the growing interest in home theatre, it provided continually improved gaming experience, it ran every piece of major mainstream (and otherwise) software to the point that there was simply little reason to upgrade. It arrived during the era of the single-core Pentium 4 and AMD Athlon 64 chips and still runs quad- and six-core Intel and AMD chips today.
But if there was anything else about the OS that saw it survive, you could include how lean an OS it was. With Vista, 7 and 8 all being well over 2GB in size, Windows XP’s comparatively light 650MB CD size made it an excellent entry-level OS in terms of the functionality you get per GB of storage required without overly affecting system performance.
The design team responsible for Windows XP can be proud of the work they did, but it’s unlikely even they could have expected the world to still be talking about it this long after its initial release.