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What to Expect from Windows XP RC1

As Microsoft releases its flagship desktop operating system--Windows XP--to manufacturing, it's probably a good time to reflect on the industry trends that led to the development of Windows XP and the lessons that Microsoft has learned from the Beta 2 feedback. In this showcase, we?ll examine the final release of Windows XP and what you can expect if you're one of the millions of people who will soon begin using this product.

"The PC has evolved," said John Frederikson, the General Manager of the PC Experience at Microsoft, at a recent Windows XP event held in New York. "We want the Windows PC to be more ubiquitous than the telephone or television. We want it to be a better communications tool than the telephone, with richer features, and a better entertainment tool than TV." Getting there will require the underlying operating system to take advantage of new hardware and technology as soon as possible. For this reason, Microsoft has been developing yearly consumer Windows releases for the past half decade.

Looking over the current computing climate, some trends emerge. Broadband adoption will double over the next two years. Digital media--photographs, music, and video--is currently one of the most popular but frustrating tasks that PC users work with every day. And many people, especially teenagers, have replaced phone conversations with instant messaging. According to Microsoft, over 60 percent of teenagers in the United States are using some sort of IM tool.

In the home, the PC is king. Most people no longer replace PCs but keep the older one in use as a second system. Home networking--especially wireless networking--is exploding as people begin to see the benefits of untethered Internet access. In fact, wireless is huge at both the home and at work, with "hotspot" wireless networking--in airports and airplanes, coffee shops, corporate campuses, and the like--leading the way.

So Microsoft took all this into account as they developed Windows XP. But user feedback was also key to understanding what it was that people wanted from their PCs. "People found Windows to be too complex," Frederikson said. "They would lose data. They didn't like cluttered desktops, preferring to use the desktop for family photos. Most people don't want to delete anything because they're afraid that it will be something important. On Windows 98 PCs, no one was using user profiles because it wasn't discoverable and then wasn?t easy to setup for if anyone did find it."

"People complained that home networking was too difficult to setup. Microsoft made the mistake of assuming that the only people doing this at home were IT professionals, but the data is that most are people doing this has no networking experience at all. The tools just weren't designed for them."

Enter Windows XP
Windows XP was designed to address these issues, and of course I've written much about this OS already on the SuperSite. In late March, the company finally unleashed the Beta 2 release of Windows XP, which featured the new "Luna" user interface and a number of other important features. In the months since then, Microsoft has worked to integrate a number of changes and new features into Windows XP. These changes were often the result of feedback from Beta 2.

"The feedback on Beta 2 had been fantastic," Frederikson told us. "Testers reported that Windows XP Beta 2 was more stable than the final release of Windows 2000. They found applications that would not run on Windows 2000 could run fine under Windows XP. But they felt that the visual design colors were too limited. They were concerned about Windows Product Activation (WPA). They felt that the privacy features in Internet Explorer 6 were hard to customize and set up. And we discovered that the number of users wanting to run multiple monitors at home was far larger than our research had suggested."

Microsoft received Windows XP Beta 2 feedback from a number of venues. "We enlisted 15,000 English-speaking technical beta testers, 21,000 worldwide," said John Gray, a Windows XP Group Program Manager. "We had 20 corporations in the Joint Deployment Program (JDP) deploying beta versions of Windows XP in their live environments. MSDN, TechNet, and 200,000 people worldwide in the Windows XP Preview Program. 40 families in 5 cities as part of a new Real People, Real Beta program: These were average people, not computer experts. We were looking for usability feedback: Application compatibility, device compatibility, networking and home networking scenarios, combinations of hardware and software interacting."

Gray says that Microsoft's internal metering placed the quality of Windows XP Beta 2 as better than Windows 2000 RC1. "We're approaching Windows 2000 (RTM) results now," he said in June. "Our bug reports and newsgroup activity prove this to be the most active Windows beta ever." By the time XP was released in late August, of course, it had surpassed the quality and reliability of Windows 2000.

Getting it released
To hit its deadlines and ship Windows XP by the promised October date, Microsoft looked hard at its goals for this release and the schedule. "Some people say that we are a date-driven company, while Microsoft often says that it is quality driven," said Gray. "The truth is that we're both. And we think we can ship Windows XP at the highest quality level given the timeframe we've established. We wouldn't have announced the October date if that wasn't going to happen."

At the RC1 event, Microsoft established the remainder of the schedule for Windows XP. RC1 would ship between Friday, June 29 and the July 4th holiday (it hit that June 29th date). RC1 is designed to be feature complete, with the highest possible quality so that the company can get the best feedback. RC2 would ship about 30 days later and will fix key customer and internal feedback on RC1. "We're on track to release the highest quality Windows ever," Gray said. "And we have plenty of time to hit our quality goals." And indeed, Windows XP RC2 shipped on schedule on July 27, 2001. And the final release--build 2545--was renumbered as build 2600 to be more easily remembered by users. It was officially declared on Friday, August 24, 2001.

At this point, Microsoft has released Windows XP to manufacturing and handed the code over to OEMs such as Dell and IBM so that they can begin preparing Windows XP PCs. "Most people don't understand the logistics of shipping a product like this," Gray said. "We need to send CDs off for manufacturing in August so that retail boxes can be prepped and shipped worldwide by October. PC makers will get the final code and run final test passes on systems preinstalled with drivers and devices. They can tune it, and optimize it, sign off on it, and then stock inventory."

Windows XP will be released in 34 languages. Of these 25 fully localized versions will be made available on October 25, including English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, Brazilian, Japanese, Traditional Chinese, Chinese-HK, Chinese-S, Korean, Arabic, and Hebrew. Approximately 2 to 4 weeks after that, Microsoft will ship versions in Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Russian, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Portuguese, Turkish, and Greek. And within 30 days of that, the following versions will ship with multilingual user interface only: Slovenian, Slovak, Romanian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Thai.

Getting Windows XP into user's hands
When it comes to acquiring Windows XP, the vast majority of people will do so with a new PC purchase. The second most common scenario is an upgrade of an existing system. A very small fraction of users will buy Windows XP at retail and clean install on an existing PC.

Microsoft lists the base hardware requirements for Windows XP as an Intel or compatible processor running at 233 MHz or higher with 64 MB of RAM or more, but recommends a 300 MHz processor and 128 MB of RAM. "Windows XP is faster than most previous versions of Windows on the same system," Gray said. "People will have a better experience with Windows XP."

Amazingly, Microsoft backs up this claim with the following chart, which purports to show how Windows XP RC1 compares to various versions of Windows on a system with 128 MB of RAM:

Rank Business Winstone Content Creation Winstone Webmark 2001 Sysmark 2001 Boot Standby & Resume Hibernate & Resume
Best Windows XP / Windows 2000 (tie) Windows XP Windows XP Windows 2000 Windows XP Windows XP Windows XP
2nd Windows XP / Windows 2000 (tie) Windows 2000 Windows 2000 Windows XP Windows Me Windows 2000 Windows 2000
3rd Windows 98 SE Windows 98 SE Windows 98 SE Windows 98 SE Windows 98 SE Windows Me Windows Me
Courtesy, Microsoft Corporation. Final benchmarks will be available by retail availability

My own experience with these operating systems is somewhat different, and I don't see Windows XP outperforming any previous version of Windows on identical hardware. However, this isn't a defeat for XP per se: Windows XP uses more resources because of its superior, full-featured user interface and other features. I think the trade-off is well worth it.

Upgrading to Windows XP
The Windows XP upgrade path is rather complex, but it looks something like this:

If you have this version of Windows... You can upgrade to this version of Windows XP...
Windows 3.1 Clean install required
Windows 95 Clean install required
Windows 98 Windows XP Home Edition, Windows XP Professional Edition
Windows 98 SE Windows XP Home Edition. Windows XP Professional Edition
Windows Millennium Edition (Me) Windows XP Home Edition, Windows XP Professional Edition
Windows NT 3.51 Workstation Clean install required
Windows NT 4 Workstation Windows XP Professional Edition
Windows 2000 Professional Windows XP Professional Edition
Windows XP Home Edition Windows XP Professional Edition

"The Windows XP upgrade experience has been improved in a number of ways," said Kristian Gyorkos, a Windows XP Product Manager. "The new Windows Upgrade Advisor is a tool that can tell customers what their individual Windows XP upgrade experience will be like." The tool finds supported hardware and software on your system and prepares a reporting listing those items that might cause problems. It will be provided on the Windows XP CD-ROM and via download from the Microsoft Web site. Major retailers such as Best Buy and CompUSA will be giving out the tool on CD-ROM later this summer, and major PC magazines will be shipping with it later this year. This way, users can check their system before buying Windows XP and identify any problems.

Windows Product Activation (WPA)
Windows Product Activation was clearly the most controversial issue discussed at the RC1 event and the one that Microsoft did the poorest job of explaining and defending. In a heated exchange with the press in the Q&A after the event, the company basically asserted that the feature was here to stay, opinions be damned. "Do you mean to tell me that Microsoft is actually concerned about 'neighborhood piracy rings'?" one irritated writer asked. "Basically, yes," came the response. It was pretty ugly.

I had approached this event with one goal, incidentally, and that was to discover whether there was any chance that Microsoft would drop or at least ease up on WPA. Sadly, I can now report that there was no indication of this at all. Indeed, Microsoft is pig-headedly unable to discuss this topic, and I came away almost stunned by the responses that questions about this topic received. Even questions about potential "home licenses" or "home networking licenses"--which had, in the past, seemed possible--were shot down completely. "We are looking at feedback on a home license to determine whether there is a need," said Allen Nieman, from Microsoft licensing. "But the need is not as prevalent as you might think."

Microsoft continues to be tight-lipped on what sorts of changes could trigger a reactivation, sticking the line about "significant changes." The company says that one goal of WPA is to prevent hard drive cloning. And it says that anyone calling to activate Windows by phone will face a maximum wait time of 2 minutes, with another 2 minutes required for activation. One change since Beta 2: When you activate by phone, the phone rep reads you back a 50 character string, but that string now consists of numbers only, not numbers and letters, as it did before. Microsoft says that this makes it considerably easier to type the string correctly, cutting down on the amount of time one has to spend on the phone.

Here's a flowchart that describes how WPA works:

User enters a Product Key
User prompted to activate
Required after 30 day grace period
Connection Method
- Internet
- Telephone
Installation ID sent to Microsoft Clearinghouse
Microsoft Clearinghouse
Installation ID processed
Microsoft Clearinghouse
Business rules verified
Microsoft Clearinghouse
Confirmation ID returned
Back at user's PC
Confirmation received
Product activated
License updated

Application Compatibility
Moving Windows users to the NT code-base (excuse me, the "Windows Engine") is a massive undertaking, and one that shouldn't be underestimated. However, given this, one of the more impressive wins for Windows XP is its application compatibility. Unlike Windows 2000, Windows XP has been designed with application (and device) compatibility in mind.

By the time Windows XP RC1 had arrived, Microsoft has actually surpassed its goal of successfully testing and passing over 1000 top retail applications. These include the most popular applications in key areas such as DirectX games, graphics, utilities, accessibility, communications, Internet, edutainment, software development, and others. The number of compatible applications will continue to increase beyond RTM, because Microsoft will use the self-updating capabilities in Windows Update to keep Windows XP improving.

New application compatibility features in Windows XP include a redesigned Compatibility Mode Wizard, which will enable customers to leverage AppCompat technology to resolve issues with older applications, and Windows Catalog, a Web site with information about compatible applications and Windows XP logo'd applications, which will provide the best experience under this new OS.

"Basic support for DOS applications was available in Windows NT and 2000," said Ryan Marshall, a Windows XP Program Manager. "But for year and a half this has been improved on in Windows XP with SoundBlaster 2 support and VESA videos modes for older DOS games."

Users will find that Windows XP is a tremendous release which answers key complaints from the past while adding new functionality and features that will take advantage of modern hardware. Microsoft is missing the mark with Windows Product Activation, however, which may very come back to haunt the company in the future. But it's unlikely that WPA--or the bad press that surrounds it--will do anything to diminish one's impressions of Windows XP. If you're on the hundreds of thousands of people evaluating this release, I suspect you're going to come away impressed.

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