Windows XP is 10 years old. The OS was released on October 25, 2001 shortly after the launch of IE6 — its default browser. Despite its age, XP remains one of the world’s most-used operating systems. It peaked at 75% in 2006 and, even today, is still installed on more than 38% of internet-connected PCs. It’s taken Windows 7 more than two years to overtake XP and it’s only edged ahead by a couple of percentage points.
‘XP’ is short for ‘Experience’. The OS was an ambitious project to merge the Microsoft’s home (Window 95, 98, Millennium) and corporate (NT, Windows 2000) systems into one codebase. In essence, Windows XP would have stability plus the ability to run games.
It’s easy to forget the first few frustrating months. I was in Redmond during the XP launch and many Microsoft employees were experiencing installation hassles. However, the problems dwindled once drivers became available and manufacturers started to support the OS.
It’s rare for any PC OS to reach a 10-year milestone so what are the primary reasons for XP’s persistence? A combination of factors have led to its success:
1. XP is rock-solid
Ten years of updates and experience have solved the majority of niggles. Few manufacturers launch new hardware without XP drivers and there’s plenty of support for old devices.
2. The Longhorn and Vista Debacle
Microsoft intended Longhorn to be XP’s successor and, had they achieved that goal, it would have been a revolutionary OS. But that was Longhorn’s downfall: it was too revolutionary.
The subsequent cancellations and about-turns caused a 5-year delay between XP and Vista — an OS which was universally slammed in the technical and mainstream press. Personally, I didn’t think Vista deserved all the flak; assuming you had supported hardware, Vista was a capable OS. But mud sticks and Vista remains one of Microsoft’s biggest disappointments.
3. The Rise of Netbooks
Asus released the first Eee PC in 2007: the first of many affordable lightweight netbooks which were ideal for workers on the move.
The first had Linux installed and many predicted it could lead to mainstream acceptance of the OS. Microsoft couldn’t let that happen. Vista’s demanding hardware requirements were unsuitable for the devices so they had little choice but to breathe life back into XP.
4. The Economy
I hope you hadn’t noticed but the world’s been in recession for the past three years. Businesses are cutting costs and staff: it’s difficult to justify upgrading PCs and operating systems when XP runs on modest hardware. It will also receive Microsoft support until 2014.
5. Users Like XP
People have been using XP for ten years. You may find that horrific but many non-technical users are reassured to use something they know.
Few people would argue XP is better than Windows 7, but the newer OS isn’t a radical improvement. Windows 7 looks great but it won’t improve your working efficiency by a significant margin.
Web Developer Woes
I suspect some of you are questioning why I’m discussing XP on SitePoint. Operating Systems don’t normally affect web developers: if the user has an up-to-date browser we rarely care about their OS.
IE8.0 is the last XP-compatible version of Internet Explorer. We may not like it, but Microsoft has few technical or commercial reasons to release IE9 and future editions on their old OS. Those users could switch to Firefox, Chrome, Safari or Opera but many private and business users will retain XP and IE8 for years to come.
At the time of writing, IE8 is the world’s most-used browser with a 24% market share. The number is falling, but the browser won’t disappear any time soon — and it doesn’t directly support many of the technologies we’re adopting today. If you thought IE6 was painful, consider how bad IE8 HTML5 development will be in 2014.
Windows XP has served us well and deserves to die with dignity. However, it will certainly linger longer than Microsoft expected. That’s not good for any of us.
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Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.