Windows XP: Looking back, looking forward

Fred langa By Fred Langa

On October 22, Microsoft pulled the plug on sales of Windows XP, ending the operating system’s spectacular nine-year run.

With no new copies being sold, support for XP will start to decline. Fortunately, XP’s long run has produced a ton of collected wisdom: everything you need to keep your copy going strong and — when ready — to help you move on.

The end of XP is a watershed moment. It’s truly the most successful operating system in the history of personal computers. Windows 3.x was great in its day; it gave mass-market, affordable PCs the graphical prowess Microsoft needed to compete with the more expensive Macintosh computers. But it lasted only five years, from 1990 to 1995. XP’s reign was twice as long!

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The Windows 9x family (95 and 98) were also stellar OSes. Windows 95, released in 1995, introduced Windows Explorer for file management and was the first Windows to exploit the power of 32-bit hardware. And it added TCP/IP networking as an integral (not bolted-on) component of the OS.

Windows 98, delivered in 1998, was the first Windows to integrate Internet Explorer. Because it was essentially free, IE quickly ignited industry controversy and ensuing legal battles for Microsoft. But as part of the Windows package, it helped with the explosive growth of the Web and the dot-com boom of the late ’90s.

In 2000, five years after the launch of Windows 95, Microsoft — late getting its next operating system out the door — released the stopgap kludge Windows ME (short for Millennium Edition; it was soon given less-charitable labels). It landed with a resounding thud. Even Vista was more popular than ME.

So Windows XP’s near-decade reign is impressive. Rolled out in 2001, it blended the familiar interface conventions of Windows 98 with the heavy-duty, business-oriented underpinnings of Windows NT (New Technology). The result was a hybrid operating system that looked good, was easy to use, and — most important — was far more stable than its predecessors.

Microsoft originally planned a five-year life span for XP. But delays and missteps with XP’s successor products (Vista, for example) plus huge upgrade resistance from users forced Microsoft to extend XP’s life again and again. Now, with Windows 7 proving itself a worthy replacement, Microsoft finally has the opportunity to retire its aging, war-horse operating system. The October 22 end for XP occurred almost exactly one year after Win7 rolled out.

XP is going out on top. According to NetMarketShare.com (home page) — which tracks operating systems actually in use online — XP still holds a commanding 60.03% market share, as shown in Figure 1.

XP is still dominant
Figure 1. XP use is declining, but based on a recent NetMarketShare.com. chart, it’s still the dominant OS by far.

XP is losing about 1% to 2% market share per month; Win7, coming on strong, is currently in second place at 17.10% and is growing at 2% to 3% per month. And because many businesses passed on Vista, there’s a huge pent-up market for Win7 upgrades — so its share of Windows users will grow even more rapidly.

XP will get security patches until April 2014

Now that software development on XP has stopped, the most important question for XP users is future support. Microsoft plans no further Service Packs or feature enhancements for the OS. But given the astounding number of people still using XP, Microsoft says it will provide XP security updates through April 2014. (See Figure 2.) That should give large businesses sufficient time to complete their Win7 migration.

In addition, Microsoft’s knowledge base will continue to host XP-related information for at least that long. That’s an astounding 13 years after the OS was first released. To my knowledge, that’s a record — the longest-supported run of any major personal computer operating system by any company, ever!

XP lifecycle dates
Figure 2. A condensed view of Microsoft’s XP lifecycle chart shows support for the OS ending in 2014 (circled in yellow).

Microsoft included many keys to XP’s success

In addition to the ease-of-use and stability enhancements mentioned earlier, XP had other features and innovations that made it a winner.

For example, XP was the first Windows with so-called intelligent taskbar and notification-area behavior. (The taskbar contains the Start button and the icons representing running programs; the notification area, the small block in the lower-right corner of the Windows screen, contains the clock and icons for background tasks and services.) When your taskbar runs out of space, XP intelligently overlays similar icons on top of each other and suppresses inactive notification icons.

That might not seem like a big deal now, but it was a major innovation in its time — one that made using many programs vastly simpler. In fact, XP’s overall user interface may be the most imitated ever. If you don’t believe me, check out almost any desktop Linux and see how familiar the UI seems.

XP was the first Windows to ship with built-in CD-R burning software; first to include user-configurable power management; first to ship with a built-in backup tool; and first to ship with ClearType, a screen-legibility enhancement — all features we take for granted now.

XP was the first Windows with a complete and genuinely useful Help system that replaced the rudimentary Help in Win9x. It was also the first Windows with Remote Assistance and Remote Desktop built in. And it was the first consumer/desktop Windows to support the advanced NTFS (info page) file system, which avoided the fragility and size limitations of the FAT system used in previous desktop Windows versions.

You can probably add your own list of favorite XP features.

XP’s many blemishes are well documented

No one who has used XP for any length of time will call it flawless, however. Many of those flaws — and ways to work around them — have been detailed in Windows Secret’s weekly reports.

When XP first appeared, many PCs of the day had insufficient power for the new OS, causing it to run painfully slow on those systems. And on all hardware, XP could consume ridiculous amounts of disk space for the recycle bin, Internet Explorer cache, and System Restore.

It also buried some truly useful features in places where they were hard to find and access.

Just one small example: Window 7′s Backup applet is easily found in the Control Panel’s top-level menu. XP Professional’s Backup app is located deep inside All Programs, in the System Tools menu. In XP’s Home edition, Backup isn’t even installed by default — users have to dig it out of the ValueaddMsft folder on the setup CD and perform a manual installation!

Fortunately, after almost a decade of use, nearly all of XP’s worst problems and limitations have been addressed in XP’s Service Packs, with third-party add-ons and tools, and through a wealth of published tips, tricks, and workarounds.

In the August 12 Top Story, “Preparing Windows XP for the long haul,” I provided tips on how to keep XP going for as long as you need it. The rest of this article builds on that: it’s a compendium of some of the most useful XP information from the past decade, all in one convenient reference.

You’ll also find links to help you upgrade smoothly to Windows 7 when the time comes. And at the end, you’ll see how to keep your favorite — and possibly essential — XP software alive and running well inside Windows 7, just as it runs now.

Windows Secrets XP setup/maintenance articles

Here are some of the best XP-related stories available in the windowssecrets.com library:
  • “Recover lost disk space by dumping dump files,” Langalist Plus, Feb. 12, 2009
  • “Access more memory, even on a 32-bit system,” Top Story, Dec. 18, 2008
  • “How to maintain XP after Microsoft ends support,” Top Story, Nov. 13, 2008
  • “Slimmed-down Windows XP delivers big benefits,” Woody’s Windows, Oct. 9, 2008
  • “Keep XP fresh until Windows 7 arrives,” Top Story, May 15, 2008
  • “Make a bootable thumb drive that runs XP,” PC Tune-Up, March 27, 2008
  • “More free ways to enhance Windows XP,” Known Issues, July 26, 2007
  • “XP’s powerful ‘Tskill’ and ‘Taskkill’ commands,” LangaList, March 15, 2004
  • “How to move a Windows XP installation to different hardware,” Support Alert, Nov. 4, 2002
  • “Recovery console life saver,” LangaList, April 18, 2002
‘LangaLetter’ XP setup/maintenance articles

Before I joined forces with Windows Secrets, I wrote a column called the “LangaLetter” for InformationWeek.com. Please excuse the vanity, but I believe XP users will find some of the following articles of interest.
When you’re ready to migrate from XP to Win7

Eventually, the day will come when you’ll move on from XP. Here’s help:
  • “Migrating from Windows XP to Windows 7,” an MS TechNet article
  • “Windows 7 upgrade and migration guide,” a TechNet Library article
  • “Upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7,” an MS tutorial
  • “Migrate XP to Windows 7 with easy transfer over the network,” a How-ToGeek article
  • “Migrate XP to Windows 7 with easy transfer and a USB Drive,” a How-ToGeek article
  • “Transfer files and settings from XP to Windows 7,” a Help Desk Geek article
The ultimate XP knowledge base — the Web!

Here’s an easy way you can use Google, Bing, and most other search engines to find specific XP information from almost any site. Use this formulation:

xp [topic] site:[domain]

Replace [topic] with the keyword(s) you’re looking for and [domain] with the site’s name. For example, the search phrase

xp dual boot site:windowssecrets.com

will show you all the Windows Secrets articles that discuss XP dual booting;

xp pagefile site:microsoft.com

will show you everything about XP’s pagefile from Microsoft.com.

Keep your XP environment inside Windows 7

Windows 7 offers two ways to keep older software running well inside the new OS. The first, its Program Compatibility settings, is explained in the MS article, “What is program compatibility?”

The Program Compatibility settings take care of the majority of compatibility issues. But for programs that need more, you can get the free “Windows XP Mode” software for Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate at its Microsoft download site.

Win 7′s XP Mode sets up a complete, free, already-licensed, self-contained XP virtual PC that runs inside Windows 7. When you install software on the XP virtual machine, the software thinks it’s running on a regular, stand-alone XP box! Everything behaves in the normal XP way, so applications work the way you’re used to.

XP mode gives you the best of both worlds: you can retain and run your older XP-based software but still get all the benefits of using Win7!

Once you try the new Win7 interface, I think you’ll like it. But if you don’t, Woody’s Windows’ April 1 article, “Classic Shell puts XP retro back into Win7,” shows you how to recreate the familiar XP look and feel in Windows 7.

With almost a decade’s worth of XP information at your fingertips, you’ll be able to keep your copy of XP running smoothly for a long, long time to come!

Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praises, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

Fred Langa is a senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987-91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991-97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.
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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.