Twenty years after the official release of Windows XP, the popular operating system is still considered one of Microsoft’s greatest achievements.
In August this year, Windows XP still maintained a larger market share than its successor, Windows Vista.
When mainstream support for XP ended in April 2009, it ran on a whopping 75% of Windows computers, and about 19% of people still used XP when enhanced security support ended in 2014. Microsoft provided security support in a few special cases, f .ex. in terms of military use, until 2019 – an incredible 18 years after its first release.
But what made XP stand out? And what has Microsoft learned in the two decades since its release?
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The rise and rise of Windows XP
Windows XP was launched on October 25, 2001 during a golden age at Microsoft, when the company reached its highest revenue yet, dominated the PC market and had taken a strong lead over Netscape in the browser wars (after the latter led the race through the 1990s). XP also came at a time when more people than ever were buying their first personal computer.
These personal and business computers arrived with a complete package of Microsoft software pre-installed and ready to use. As a result, the Windows operating system defined many people’s computer experience.
Built on the core of the highly successful Windows NT operating system (also the foundation of Windows 2000), Windows XP provided an opportunity that for the first time looked and felt the same, whether used at home or at work.
Prioritizing user needs in this way represented a turning point for Microsoft, and was an important ingredient in XP’s long reign. XP also featured several innovations, including the introduction of the Microsoft Error Reporting platform.
Earlier versions of Windows had become notorious for the so-called “blue screen of death” that appeared when the system encountered an error. XP replaced this with a small pop-up to collect data about the bug and send it to Microsoft engineers to help them improve the software.
During the XP period, Microsoft also launched Visual Studio .NET, a software package for building new Windows applications. This combined all their developer tools into a range of programming languages, including Visual C ++ and Visual Basic, and the new “object-oriented” language C # – a rival to the popular Java language.
These were further signs of changing attitudes at Microsoft; the company was centered on prioritizing users. But it did not last.
Vista and Windows 7 fall
In 2007, the Windows Vista successor to XP was released. It was considered an inferior, inflated and useless system by many commentators, including Time magazine. Vista, designed for high-power computers, was often unbearably slow and frustrating to use on older machines that ran XP comfortably.
Windows 7 followed Vista in 2009 and confronted users with massive changes. It initially forced users on computers with keyboards and mice to a tablet-style interaction on the home screen.
The familiar icons and desktop format disappeared. Instead, users were greeted with tiles of different sizes and scrolling mechanisms that were perfect for touch screens but awkward for mouse navigation.
It seemed that Microsoft no longer had users’ wishes as a priority. It was not until the release of Windows 8 in 2012 that the company returned to its user-first paradigm. And this change was not least spurred by having to compete with Apple’s MacOS (Macbooks), iOS (iPhones and iPads) and Android phones and tablets.
Branches away from PCs
Although it was released at the same time as Windows XP, Microsoft’s first tablet offering was also widely considered a failure. The Windows XP tablet was based on a reduced operating system and a completely different family of processors.
The tablet’s system was hampered by connectivity issues related to its need for consistent and stable internet connection (which even now is not given in the mobile world). It was also incompatible with existing software offerings.
A similar story unfolded in the cell phone room. Early Windows Phones like Windows Phone 7, released in 2010 without many basic features such as Copying and pasting were never serious competitors to Apple’s iPhones or Google’s Android phones.
In 2013, Microsoft bought Nokia’s mobile and devices division (later abandoned and resold in 2016), but its phones were still unsuccessful.
Although Windows Phones are still available, Microsoft switched lanes in 2014. Upcoming CEO Satya Nadella said the new agenda was “mobile first, cloud first”, meaning cloud-connected mobile computing was in focus. Nadella outlined a desire to create a Windows NT for the Internet.
This is something that Microsoft Azure cloud computing service and Surface Pro tablet — now with the same processors as its PC cousins and the ability to run without a constant Internet connection — have achieved.
Cloud or service-oriented computing means you can use any type of device to access your operating system (known as “platform as a service”) and office productivity tools such as Office365 (“software as a service”).
Azure represents a return to Microsoft that provides computing that meets the needs of businesses and people.
If it is not damaged, do not fix it
Modern computing is a balance between portability, power consumption, ease of use and speed, among other factors. Businesses can no longer just throw advanced hardware at a problem and expect the public to tolerate poor user experience.
The success of XP and the subsequent failures of its successors provide many technologies lessons – the most important of which is this: If it is not corrupted, do not fix it.
By acknowledging past mistakes and returning to a user-first policy, Microsoft was actually able to secure its place in the market for decades to come.
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