With an installed customer base of four hundred million users, the operating system known as Windows XP is, as its marketing-designed code name “eXPerience” suggests, truly an experience. While much of the consumer technology press is still abuzz over the myriad of new features and aesthetic improvements introduced by its successor, the highly touted Windows Vista, recognition must be given to the fact that in spite of the love-hate relationship many individuals maintain with Microsoft products, it is currently the best operating system on the market. (Fruhinger, 2006)
Part of this has to do with the fact that at present, Windows Vista is currently a bit of a resource hog. Despite the fact that in 2005, Microsoft made the claim that nearly all personal computers on the market had the sufficient hardware necessary to run Vista, some features, particularly the sleek aesthetic of the Aero interface, which justify the purchase of Vista in the first place require high-end hardware. As such, the very components which incentivize an upgrade are actually unavailable to casual users. In time, sufficient advances in hardware will probably make this far less of an issue, but at the moment, Vista is a less than ideal choice for the average consumer who does not have the financial means to justify purchasing a high end machine, let alone require one. (Spooner, 2005; Judge, 2006)
The Mac OS X fares no better in this regard. While Apple products are frequently touted for their ability to keep up with the changing standards of pleasing aesthetic design, this is sometimes done at the expense of system performance. While both XP and OS X make use of modern graphic effects such as anti-aliasing, alpha blending and drop shadows, the latter is more pronounced in this regard, which allows it to conform with the brand-associated aesthetic sensibilities of Apple’s entire line of products. However, Saarinen (2001) opines that Mac OS X performs abysmally when compared to Windows XP, despite the latter being produced by a company that is notoriously purported to produce operating systems bogged down by excessive code bloat.
Between the prettified interface, digital rights management and security improvements, the attention given to Windows Vista significantly overlooks what has always been the core strength of Microsoft’s operating systems: its software ecosystem. Between its broad support for various hardware components, far-reaching backwards compatibility for legacy devices and the ubiquitous availability of third-party software for a variety of purposes, Windows XP is superior in terms of customizability of ‘eXPerience.’ This means that it is ideal for people who are still trying to figure out their own computing experience as opposed to gear heads who have chosen Linux for homebrew software tinkering or multimedia creativity enthusiasts favoring Apple’s OS X for its excellent portfolio of digital media production software. For those who require an operating system that can flexibly adapt to their own needs, Windows XP is the best choice.
One of the most apparent manifestations of Windows XP’s customizability of experience is the increased attention given towards the ability for multiple users to share one PC. This is an ideal consideration, as many home users of personal computers find themselves sharing one computer among multiple family members. The introduction of Fast User Switching which removes the necessity of terminating currently running applications to switch to other user accounts by taking advantage of extra system resources to save a user account’s state to let another user to quickly access his account, as well as switch back and let the previous user take over from where he left off.
Windows XP is founded upon an expansive library of drivers that permit the operating system to interface with a highly diverse array of devices, Windows XP is capable of running on PCs using myriad combinations of parts such as Singaporean motherboards, decades-old legacy soundcards and various media storage formats. The reason behind this broad compatibility is because of the excellent relationships which Microsoft has persistently maintained with hardware vendors, as such there is a range of third party device drivers available for Windows. (Saarinen, 2001)
Therefore, the only real restriction on running Windows XP is the ability of one’s core processor to be able to run it: its requirements are a 233 Mhz processor and 64MB RAM. This was considered slightly steep at the time of its release, but at present it is well within the range of the average user’s income and/or financial means. Such broad compatibility is a boon for the general purpose user. In the case of Macintosh’s operating system, whose most recent incarnation is OS X, there is a significant lack of support for legacy devices and therefore falls short in providing backwards compatibility. Drivers written for the older Macintosh OS are not compatible with OS X.
This is a crucial point to consider, as while it is not necessarily an obligation of succeeding generations of software to provide backward compatibility, it is in the best interests of the casual end user that the most number of gadgets and devices in his or her ownership not be rendered obsolete by lack of support. It bears reiterating: the only real hardware constraint for Windows XP users is the ability of their core processor and RAM to actually be able to run the operating system itself.
Windows XP also features the same broad compatibility with software that it does with hardware. One noteworthy feature geared towards this end is its ability to ‘fool software’ through Compatibility Mode, which enables Windows XP to pretend that it is actually a previous incarnation of Windows for which the software in question is designed to run for. As such, it is possible to run legacy software on the platform, despite the fact that Windows XP is founded on a completely different kernel than previous consumer versions of Windows. Furthermore, there exists a large developer base for Windows XP, which means there is a broad range of applications available. This effectively gives Windows XP users a lot of options in terms of choice of software to use. (Thurrott, 2001; Segan, 2007)
Much of the differences between Apple’s Mac OS and Microsoft Windows are derived from the contrasting ways which both companies approach personal computing. Walter Mossberg (2006), who favors Apple, observes that the beloved manufacturer of iPods champions a vertically integrated ‘end-to-end model’ that perfectly links software, hardware and online functionality. Kahney (2008) asserts that such a model of development inherently demands a closed-source approach to design, by which the resulting products have been finely tuned in secret:
“Apple creates must-have products the old-fashioned way: by locking the doors and sweating and bleeding until something emerges perfectly formed. It’s hard to see the Mac OS and the iPhone coming out of the same design-by-committee process that produced Microsoft Vista or Dell’s Pocket DJ music player.” (Kahney, 2008)
By contrast, Microsoft favors a component model approach to software development: setting platform standards and pushing them into a state of ubiquity that enables third-party developers of hardware and software to integrate the functionality of their products into the Windows operating system. As such, many new computing applications are developed independently of whatever computing agenda or product strategy Microsoft has in mind. The result is more options at generally lower prices.
Granted, much of the third party emergent hardware and software is usually imperfect, but that is the inevitable cost of making functionality immediately available to users who don’t have the patience to wait for Apple to spend months working it into their integration scheme or the technical skill to implement it themselves through Linux. When it comes to simplicity and perfectly executed core functionality, the Mac OS is at its best, but when it comes to adaptability and the abundant emergence of new functions, Windows XP suits users who prefer a more dynamic approach to personal computing. (Mossberg, 2006)
Windows XP is built upon an improved version of the same macrokernel used by NT. Several enhancements to the kernel afford the user greater stability, particularly in terms of the allocation and distribution of computing resources. For the most part, this is of concern mostly to network administrators who must constantly worry about the possibility of network failure due to resource strain. However, the same protections which are afforded to network stability also benefit the casual user.
For instance, like most current generation operating systems, Windows XP is dependent on page files for the management of virtual memory. In the event that the system runs out of allocatable memory, Windows XP makes use of I/O throttling in order to terminate the parallel processing of tasks and instead run the processing in sequence, one page at a time. This effectively reduces the speed of processing, but it also prevents the system in question from crashing when memory is tied up. (Shinder, 2002)
Also, Windows XP no longer indiscriminately grants requests for memory by drivers. Shinder (2002) observes that in previous incarnations of Windows, drivers were wont to make “must succeed” requests to the operating system to allocate memory. Often these requests were granted by the operating system, regardless of the level of availability of memory resources, and as such, when memory was low, a “must succeed” request could result in a system crash. Windows XP no longer grants these requests unconditionally, and it is this safeguard that is of concern to not just mainstream users who have plugged in a variety of devices while operating multiple applications at the same time, but a welcome boon to network administrators as well.
Another contribution to improved functionality and system safety is the introduction of the driver rollback feature and the System Restore function. These two functions effectively perform the same function as the recently introduced Time Machine function of Mac OS X. Mac OS X’s Time Machine is essentially a backup feature that allows users to access previously saved versions of files, enabling them to restore them to a state before a file in question has been modified. (Krazit, 2006)
Microsoft Windows XP’s System Restore function predates this ability by about five years and provides a more useful backup feature that gives users the ability to return to previous system states. System Restore is used to automatically or manually generate system checkpoints, ideally prior to the installation of a major application, which can be used to restore the system in the event that subsequent changes made from that point in time onwards create adverse effects on functionality or undesirable footprints to the configuration or system registry. (Shinder, 2002) Both the System Restore function and the driver rollback feature make trouble shooting far from the arduous affair that it is on a Linux based operating system.
Like System Restore, Windows XP’s driver rollback feature is another backup utility which helps safeguard critical functions of the operating system. A fundamental responsibility for dedicated computer enthusiasts is the need to maintain updated drivers for their hardware in order to ensure consistent functionality, reliability and compatibility of such devices with software applications. However, software drivers like any other form of software, are not perfect.
The massive complexity of difference between one user’s system and another and the increasing complication created by user foot print means that it is difficult to precisely determine how one driver will work with any one person’s system. As such, there are instances when upgrading drivers may result in the compromising of the aforementioned functionality. The driver rollback feature permits a user to revert from a non-functioning or malfunctioning driver to a version that existed prior to his last driver update. In effect, he can undo any driver changes that broke any hardware that didn’t really need any fixing.
Also, Windows XP makes use of Windows Update (in tandem with protocols designed to authenticate the legitimate ownership of a currently installed version of Windows XP) to ensure that a user’s copy of Windows XP is constantly up to date with regards to patches designed to address any system vulnerabilities particularly those related to security and safety of access. Contrary to popular belief, Windows XP is actually far more secure than critics contend. Part of the reason why Windows XP, and all other Microsoft products receive so much attention with regards to system vulnerabilities has to do with the fact that they have a much larger installed user base than Mac OS X and Linux.
As a result, system vulnerabilities get more attention because of the broader number of users affected and because individuals or entities seeking to engage in malicious hacking often find it preferable to target users of Microsoft Windows XP because of the larger net they will be able to cast in terms of the number of personal computers they can affect. In fact, according to computer security company Symantec (2008), Microsoft maintained the shortest average patch development time of the five operating systems it monitored in the last six months of 2006, effectively being able to address discovered vulnerabilities faster than most other companies.
For casual computer users, the distinctions between various operating systems, especially in the aspects discussed above are purely academic ones. Increased functionality or improved stability is a whole lot of gobbledygook: What matters is not how much more stable an operating system is to previous incarnations, or to its competitors but to what extent it can fulfill their needs. Windows XP is an excellent operating system, precisely because it implements the very improvements and functions that best serve a broad range of user experiences: diversity of purpose, adaptability to hardware, compatibility with software.
All of this is done in such a way to prevent users from breaking the operating system whether by introducing strange new devices, or an indiscriminate use of multiple applications or being unprepared for system vulnerabilities and faulty driver updates. Furthermore, Windows XP is more resource efficient than Windows Vista, more open to software and hardware choices than Mac OS X and more suited to casual tinkering (as opposed to dedicated tinkering) than Linux. Windows XP is the best operating system right now.
Fruhlinger, J. (2006, January 18). “Analyst: No effect from tardy XP service pack.” IT World. Retrieved August 21, 2008 from: http://www.itworld.com/060118xpsp3
Spooner, J. G. (2005, August 5) “Will Your PC Run Windows Vista?” EWeek.Com. Retrieved August 21, 2008 from: http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Windows/Will-Your-PC-Run-Windows-Vista/1/
Judge, E. (2006, May 20) “Windows revamp ‘too advanced for most PCs’ The Times Online. Retrieved August 21, 2008 from: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/consumer_goods/article722034.ece
Saarinen, J. (2001, October 30) “XP vs. Mac vs. Linux.” New Zealand PC World. Retrieved August 23, 2008 from: http://pcworld.co.nz/PCWorld/pcw.nsf/UNID/ACC21A8F154C34B0CC256AED006F7668?OpenDocument
Thurrott, P. (2001, September 3). “Windows XP Home Edition and Professional Reviewed.” Paul Thurrott’s SuperSite for Windows. Retrieved August 24, 2008 from: http://www.winsupersite.com/reviews/windowsxp.asp
Segan, S. (2007, November 7) “Windows XP: Still the Best.” Retrieved August 22, 2008 from: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,308301,00.html
Mossberg, W. (2006, May 11) “In Our Post-PC Era, Apple’s Device Model Beats The PC Way.” The Wall Street Journal.
Kahney, L. (2008, March 18) “How Apple Got Everything Right By Doing Everything Wrong.” Wired.
Shinder, T. (2002, March 11) “Windows XP kernel enhancements for the network administrator.” Tech Republic. Retrieved August 24, 2008 from: http://articles.techrepublic.com.com/5100-10878_11-1056079.html
Krazit, T. (2006, August 7) “New Apple feature sends users back in time.” CNet News. Retrieved August 24, 2008 from: http://news.cnet.com/New-Apple-feature-sends-users-back-in-time/2100-1046_3-6103007.html?tag=nefd.top
Symantec Corp. (2008, April) “Internet Security Threat Report.” Retrieved August 22, 2008 from: http://www.symantec.com/business/theme.jsp?themeid=threatreport