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A Look at Windows XP Service Pack 3, Part 1: Good Enough?

Rather than write a traditional review of Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), I thought this might be an opportune time to reevaluate XP's standing in the Windows world. After all, virtually every technology pundit on earth has described Windows Vista as operating system non grata, an upgrade to be avoided at all costs. Over at the tabloid-o-rific InfoWorld, a "Save XP" petition has garnered 100,000 signatures: Sure, that pales next to the 120+ million people that are using Windows Vista at this time, but what the heck. There must be something to this. Is XP really good enough to warrant saving?

To find out, I did a clean install of Windows XP with a near-final version of Service Pack 3, the final XP service pack. I then installed a number of applications and technologies from Microsoft that bring XP roughly up to speed with Windows Vista, including Internet Explorer 7, the various Windows Live suite tools, Windows Defender, Windows Media Player 11, and Office 2007. And then I installed my stock group of preferred applications on the system, including AVG Free Antivirus, Apple iTunes, Firefox 3 Beta, Adobe PhotoShop Elements, WinRAR, and several others.

And you know what? I get it. I get why all those people are freaking out over the impending end of the mainstream availability of Windows XP, why so many are clamoring for Microsoft to give its previous generation OS another chance. And it has nothing to do with any faults in Vista, real or imagined. (Mostly imagined, actually.) No, it has everything to do with human nature. We're creatures of habit, you and I. And even the most forward-looking of us, those who enjoy living on the edge, technology-wise, have a very natural need to be in the comfort zone sometimes. And XP is just that, comfortable, like that ratty old sweatshirt that we should have thrown out years ago but just can't bear to replace.

Don't get me wrong, though: It's not like anything's broken here. Windows XP has plenty of life left in it. This system will run on far less demanding hardware, comfortably, than any version of Windows Vista, and that alone means this system will be around for years to come. (Not surprisingly, XP also provides better performance in virtual machines as well.) After all, PCs last a lot longer than they used to, and while Microsoft and Intel wrestle with the fact that Moore's Law is succumbing to the current generation of under-utilized multi-processor CPUs, everyday users are noticing that they can get a lot more out of yesterday's software than was possible a decade ago during the Megahertz wars. This is big news for the industry, and for the billions of people who use PCs every day.

No, clinging to Windows XP is entirely understandable. I typically advise against upgrading to Vista on current, XP-based hardware. After all, not only will XP likely run more quickly on your existing hardware, but you'll probably also experience better compatibility, both with software and hardware devices. The old maxim is as true as ever: Unless you're an expert, you should simply adopt the latest Windows version when you purchase a new PC. This discussion begs a new type of question, however: Should you opt for XP over Vista on a new PC? (Though to be fair that question will become academic this summer when XP is no longer available in this fashion.)

My answer to this question is no, you shouldn't. Instead, you should choose Windows Vista, for the many reasons I've outlined in my Windows Vista review (check out the final part of that review for a quick list of reasons why I think Vista is a big deal and a huge improvement over XP.)

But that's not what this article is about. No, this is about those of you who have elected, bravely, foolishly, or otherwise, to stick with XP. So let's take a look, a last look at Windows XP, at least on this site, which is, after all, dedicated to the future of Windows, and not the past. But I think it's OK to take a step back and see whether what's old can be new again. After all, that's what Windows XP Service Pack 3 is all about.

Windows XP and the Vista conundrum

In delaying Windows Vista for over two years, as Microsoft did between 2004 and 2006, the software giant exacerbated the problem it always has getting customers to upgrade, and it did so once inadvertently and once on purpose. The inadvertent bit was that the longer Vista was delayed, the more comfortable XP became to users. Though XP suffered from the same performance, stability, and compatibility issues that dogged Vista in its first year (and, let's not forget, please, that XP also suffered from a range of extremely high profile security issues the kind of which have never plagued Vista, thank you very much), enough time passed that people simply forgot. Anyone buying a new PC during 2005 and 2006 discovered, perhaps to their amazement, that things actually worked pretty well most of the time. This kind of experience may be commonplace in the tightly controlled Mac OS X environment, but in the willy-nilly world of Windows, where any third-rate second-world company can and will ship a painfully bad device driver at the drop of a hat, this level of stability and reliability was a new phenomenon. Windows XP simply got more mature over time, in ways that were never possible with previous versions of Windows. For the first time ever, time effectively slowed in the computer industry. The upgrade cycle pretty much ended for a while there. (Further evidence of this evolutionary mindset can be seen in the number of XP-based OSes Microsoft shipped in this time frame, including various versions of XP Media Center and Tablet PC Editions.)

More purposefully, Microsoft also screwed over Windows Vista. As Vista was delayed again and again, Microsoft realized that it would be a mistake to tie the success of key new technologies that were to have originally been Vista-only. So it back-ported a number of technologies to XP, things that previously were designed to be Vista-specific. These include, among others, Windows Defender, Internet Explorer 7, Windows Presentation Foundation, Windows Communications Foundation, .NET 3.x, the Windows Security Center, Windows Media Player 11, and even Office 2007. (Remember, Office 2007 was originally going to be Vista-only, was then going to offer unique Vista-only functionality, and was finally changed so that it worked identically on Vista and XP.) Microsoft also dramatically detuned some key Vista features, like Instant Search, while cancelling related technologies such as WinFS. In short, Vista became less exciting over this time period whereas Windows XP became more and more capable. Now, I understand why Microsoft made these decisions and I may even agree with most of them. But the net effect should have been predictable: By not drawing a clearer line between XP and Vista for much of its next-generation technologies, Microsoft in effect created a situation where XP didn't become obsolete as quickly as did previous Windows versions. Now, the goal is admirable and understandable: Those technologies would achieve greater success due to their exposure to a larger audience. But Vista suffered as a result.

Couple this strategy with the Vista delays and Microsoft's inability to capitalize on multi-core hardware (another way in which Vista could have differentiated itself from XP), and suddenly XP becomes that comfortable old sweatshirt I discussed previously. I have no doubt these events will be closely studied by both Microsoft and various business schools in the future. To say that this was a lost opportunity is an understatement.

So here it is, in 2008, four long years after Microsoft shipped the last major update to Windows XP (Service Pack 2, which can and should have been marketed as a completely new Windows version). Microsoft may have originally wanted to ship Windows XP SP3 long, long ago, but the Windows division got all caught up in this little project called Windows Vista, so XP SP3 was sort of cast to the side and forgotten. Well, forgotten by Microsoft, that is: The company's biggest and most important customers--big businesses--seemed poised to settle on XP for the next decade, and they were getting a bit prickly about all the post-SP2 hot-fixes that Microsoft has shipped over the past three years. It seems these things are a bit time consuming to install, and they were interested in getting that promised next service pack, which would roll-up all the previous fixes into a single, convenient update.

Microsoft was quiet about SP3 for a long time, but last year the company finally owned up to the fact that it would indeed develop SP3 and ship it sometime in 2008. And sure enough, SP3 nicely rolls up all of the previously released hot fixes, providing a more seamless (i.e. less complicated and time consuming) install experience. There are a few new features, but not really, unless, again, you're one of those big businesses Microsoft is so concerned about (see my XP SP3 FAQ for details). As with Windows Vista SP1, XP SP3 is a traditional service pack, more about rolling up previous hot-fixes than about new functionality. And in XP's case, specifically, that's just fine because XP, as noted previously, has already gotten a new lease on life. Heck, practically anything that's available in Vista is available on XP now too, right?

Well, not exactly. But this isn't a matter of whether all of Vista's useful features and functionality are being made available on XP. It's a matter of whether enough of Vista's useful features and functionality are being made available on XP. In other words: Is XP still good enough? No, XP with SP3 isn't as "good" as Windows Vista, but remember that it doesn't have to be. It only has to be good enough. And maybe it is. It's certainly good enough to make people forget all about Linux on the desktop. It's proven good enough to keep people from switching to the Mac in dangerous numbers. And it appears to be good enough to make customers look at Vista and say, eh, there's not enough there there.

And that's a problem, at least for Microsoft and its current and future platforms. Because in this case, I think the company has kowtowed a bit too much to those who would see XP live forever. It cut a bit too deep from Vista and gave a bit too much to XP. Microsoft will tell you that this doesn't matter. A Windows license sold, after all, is a Windows license sold. But that's absolute baloney. If customers are standing put on the previous version, that means they're not sold on the company's technological vision, and they're no longer lining up as Microsoft tries to lead them to the future. I mean, imagine a case in which customers were allowed to choose between a previous generation Toyota Camry and the all-new, designed-from-the-ground-up 2008 model, and the customers actually chose the old version by a roughly 2-to-1 margin, despite the fact that the price hadn't changed at all? This would be devastating to any car maker. I believe it's devastating to Microsoft for the same basic reasons.

But enough business theory. What I'm really concerned with here is how this affects you, the Windows user. And the question I put before you, again, is ... Is Windows XP good enough?

Continue to Part 2: Missing Vista

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