Top Stories of 2001, #3: Windows XP

There's no doubt that we'll eventually look back on Windows XP as one of the key OS releases of all time. XP isn't important as a "platform for the future," per se, because Microsoft first developed most of the underlying technology for Windows 2000. But XP is the realization of an important Microsoft goal because it's the first OS to combine the compatibility of the old Windows Me and Windows 9x line with the security and stability of Win2K and Windows NT. But XP is also the first OS to offer a new interface paradigm that extends the aging desktop metaphor into a new world of task orientation.

Task-oriented applications and services are nothing new. For some time, Microsoft has been working on simplified wizards that guide the user through repetitive and difficult tasks. Third-party companies have even incorporated task-oriented designs into their products. At Microsoft, OS task orientation first came to light during the development of Windows Me, although the company eventually scaled back that push because of time constraints. The Windows team first worked on prototype activity centers, which segregate groups of related tasks into individual applications or windows and give the user locations as obvious as the Start button. Microsoft eventually melded activity centers directly into XP's UI or into specific applications, such as Windows Media Player (WMP), where they would be more seamless and useful.

Microsoft's goal for XP was to let the user get the job done. The company thought about all the tasks users would want to accomplish with Windows (e.g., burning CDs, listening to music, working with photographs) and added those features, as appropriate, directly to the Windows shell. If you plug in a digital camera, the system automatically asks you what you'd like to do. If you choose to download pictures through the built-in wizard, the system guides you through the step-by-step process and provides many options. When you're finished, the system opens the location to which you saved the files so you can view and edit the pictures (and that shell window also automatically displays options for those tasks). These great innovations are seldom acknowledged, but to use a somewhat tired Microsoft phrase, "It just works."

Before Microsoft released or even named XP, however, the company had to do a lot of work. Much of the news in 2001 revolved, appropriately enough, around this product's development. When the year opened, XP was still called Whistler, and its somewhat controversial (and overly blue) UI had yet to appear.

In mid-January, a Computer Reseller News (CRN) report referred to Whistler as "Windows 2000 version 2" and noted that the long-awaited Beta 2 release would ship in February, followed by a public beta within 2 months. By the end of January, Microsoft had scheduled a February 13 Whistler event at Seattle's Experience Music Project (EMP), lending credence to an earlier report in WinInfo Daily UPDATE that the product would be called Windows XP (XP stood for eXPerience). Jumbled reports about a new UI confused the underlying issues: The Luna interface technology was in place well before February, but Microsoft was indeed planning a new visual style based on this technology. To prevent leaks, the XP User Experience team kept this secret even from the rest of Microsoft.

On February 5, Microsoft confirmed the rumors and announced that Whistler would be named Windows XP and would ship late that summer. The announcement came during a workshop in Redmond for technical reporters, when Microsoft first revealed the new visual style. Because I worked under a nondisclosure agreement (NDA), I couldn't discuss it until Microsoft publicly revealed the UI at the EMP event more than a week later and couldn't go into detail until Beta 2 shipped more than a month after that. By the end of February, the release schedules for XP and the server versions of Whistler (which would become Windows .NET Server) diverged. Microsoft then said it expected to ship Whistler Server by the end of 2001 or early 2002; the company later changed this date to mid-2002. But XP was still on track for a summer release, the company said. A 64-bit version was set to ship when Intel shipped its 64-bit Itanium chip.

On March 23, Microsoft finally shipped XP beta 2, which the company had delayed at least three times. Beta 2 was the first public release to include the new visual style, although testers and the press had received a few prior builds that included it. I unleashed a torrent of XP content on the SuperSite for Windows that weekend, most of which had been ready weeks earlier, waiting for Beta 2's release.

To end criticism that it was perpetually delaying the project, Microsoft announced in early May that it would release XP on October 25, 2001. (Rumors sites had predicted that XP would slip until 2002.) And in late May, the company unveiled a controversial and ill-conceived Windows XP ExpertZone manned by "associate experts" culled from the beta program and newsgroups. The problem with such a group should be obvious: It moves the frontline of support away from the people at Microsoft who made XP and places it in the hands of enthusiasts who, although they have good intentions, frequently don't have the necessary experience to properly support the product. But Microsoft has been using this concept for years with the Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs), and both groups have their share of knowledgeable, excellent participants.

In early June, I reported that Microsoft had frozen the XP UI in the days before the Release Candidate 1 (RC1) release. The freeze meant that users would be stuck with the blue XP UI and its two-color scheme variants--silver and olive green--unless they wanted to use the old classic look and feel. The UI freeze accompanied a hardware-compatibility freeze, so support for newer technology such as USB 2 and Bluetooth, which weren't ready at that time, were left out of XP for the time being.

By mid-July, the Microsoft antitrust appeal was heating up, and the company offered a series of concessions aimed at preventing the government from turning its attention to XP. The company announced that it would let PC makers and other OEMs modify XP in ways the company previously said were impossible. A key modification gave OEMs the ability to remove Internet Explorer (IE). Microsoft also announced that it would open up its Windows Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP) to allow MP3 encoding and DVD playback, two features missing from the original product. However, users would need to add the features through add-on packs that would cost $10-$15 each. Microsoft made the move to allay criticism that XP was proprietary and supported only Microsoft's technologies.

Less than a week later, Microsoft offered more concessions, this time to Windows Product Activation (WPA), the controversial software-piracy technology that pundits feared would make upgrades impossible or at least painful. "In Windows XP RC1, \[WPA\] could be a burden for the PC enthusiast who changes hardware on a regular basis," a Microsoft representative said. "Right now we're finalizing a change to the technology that will work to make a smaller impact on these users, allowing more flexibility." The change let users upgrade as many as four metered-hardware devices over a period of time without requiring reactivation. If users made more than four changes, Microsoft would then require a phone-based reactivation. "But it's a very simple process," said Microsoft Group Product Manager Shawn Sanford. "You say, 'I've changed these things,' they give you a key, and it's done. It's not an interview; we don't put you under the glaring lights."

On August 24, Microsoft finalized XP. I spoke with the company shortly after release to manufacturing (RTM) because I was surprised to discover that several features had changed. WPA was tied to the BIOS only on new PCs, meaning that users could upgrade hardware at will and not fear reactivation. And for upgraders, Microsoft raised the reactivation limit from four hardware devices to six. The company told me that it would issue additional family licenses so that XP Home users could buy extra copies of XP at a lower price; sadly, the price wasn't all that low. And Microsoft was planning an XP Pro Step-Up pack for $125--a $75 savings. "Most PC makers are going to offer \[XP Home\] on their systems," a Microsoft representative said, "so we wanted to make it easier for those users to upgrade to \[XP Pro\]." Microsoft also planned several Windows Update-based upgrades so that new XP users could receive immediate updates beginning October 25.

On September 26, Microsoft announced that XP would go on sale with a companion product called Plus! for Windows XP. Plus! would include Plus! Voice Command, which lets users control WMP with simple spoken commands; Plus! Speaker Enhancement, which improves the sound of common desktop speakers; Plus! CD label maker, which creates customized CD covers and labels and automatically inserts artist, track, and album information; eight photo-realistic 3-D screen savers, including a super-realistic aquarium; and three new games, including HyperBowl Plus! Edition, Labyrinth Plus! Edition, and Russian Square Plus! Edition.

Finally, on October 25, Microsoft released XP, although PC makers had been bundling the new OS on machines for about 3 weeks at that point. XP sold briskly for the remainder of the year, with more than 7 million copies sold in the first 2 weeks of availability. Reports differed as to whether XP was the best-selling Windows version ever, but the company maintains that XP is selling almost twice as well as the previous record holder, Windows 98. I was unimpressed with the actual launch, staged in New York City a month and a half after the World Trade Center disaster, but I can probably chalk up that disappointment to information overload in the months before the launch. By the time XP hit the streets, I didn't have anything new to report about the product.

The history of XP's development, however, will never be as interesting as the wider OS history in which XP will play an important role. Thanks to its forward-thinking UI innovations and feedback-inspired features, the XP release marks a turning point in OS development. Every time an XP feature is aped in Linux or Mac OS X, take the time to remember where those ideas originated. Microsoft begged, borrowed, and stole its share of OS features in the past, and it's about time the company gave something back. It's also time for the rest of the computing world to realize the benefits Windows users now have in XP and, perhaps, see where this task-based interface can take us in the future.

TAGS: Windows 8
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