When Microsoft launched Windows XP (for eXPerience) in October 2001, people tended to share the family computer (hence fast user-switching), but it didn’t even provide a decoder to play DVDs. XP was claimed to run in 64MB, and support for 2GB of memory seemed to provide plenty of headroom. It was also a 32-bit operating system, with its 64-bit version targeted at Intel’s new Itanium chip.
Today, people need a system that plays DVDs and high-definition Blu-ray movies, that makes Wi-Fi and home networking easy, and that supports both large memory spaces and today’s 64-bit processors.
Of course, when XP was launched, plenty of people said it wasn’t necessary, and they were happy using old DOS-based versions such as Windows 95, 98, and 98SE. No doubt this was true, but technically it was absurd. XP provided dramatic advances in power and reliability.
However, XP was incompatible with many old programs and peripherals, it needed new drivers, and the interface needed some relearning. In general, people are comfortable with what they know, so there was lots of resistance.
Three years ago, we went through a similar but smaller transition with Windows Vista. This introduced new plumbing, toughened the security (XP had proven embarrassingly insecure) and provided a complete 64-bit version for widely used 64-bit processors.
Again, Vista was incompatible with numerous old programs and peripherals, it needed new drivers, and the new user interface required relearning. As always, there was resistance.
In this case, the resistance had some success. Microsoft hadn’t got enough support from what it calls “the Windows ecosystem” in terms of software compatibility updates and good quality drivers, Vista’s hardware requirements were too high, and the security features annoyed people.
But the need for the Vista’s advances has not gone away. That’s why Microsoft has built Windows 7 on the same foundations - just as it built XP on the foundations of Windows 2000 - while fixing Vista’s “pain points” such as security alerts. Windows 7 thus runs better than Vista while using fewer resources, and both Microsoft and its ecosystem partners have worked to make it compatible with more old applications and peripherals. Business users can even run their old stuff virtually in XP mode.
Of course, not everyone will upgrade. There are always early adopters, keen to be among the first to use a new system, and late adopters, who will hang on to the old stuff long after they would have been better off upgrading.
Because Windows has more than a billion users, both groups will be large. Even if Windows 7 is the most successful operating system of all time, and picks up 300m users by the end of next year, that’s still less than a third of the installed base. Windows XP will be in the majority for another few years.
The one thing to be clear about is that while XP has been a huge success in this decade, it’s not going to survive much of the next one. It will now decline, slowly, along with its hardware and software support.
There’s no urgent need to switch to Windows 7, especially if you don’t need a new PC. But you will almost certainly change eventually - and when you get to know Windows 7, you’ll probably like it.