Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Windows XP -- if we only knew then

The Washington Post discusses Windows XP's upcoming fifth anniversary, and notes that if Microsoft knew back in 2001 what it now knows, it would (should have?) delayed the release of XP to fix a lot of major problems.

This operating system has needed a steady diet of patches to stay close to healthy. On a machine with a September 2001-vintage copy of Windows XP Home Edition, installing every bug-fix released as of August ballooned its Windows directory from 987 megabytes to 2.43 gigabytes.

You can think of Windows XP as a house with a second floor built of spackle, wood filler and duct tape.

And even with all those updates, the operating system has met only a few of its goals while falling short of others in a catastrophic manner. And it's done so for reasons that can't all be blamed on XP's design or Microsoft's own actions. That, in turn, means that its long-delayed replacement, Windows Vista -- now due to ship in January -- may run into the same problems.


Software that looks ugly can work ugly, and XP has been too forgiving of that as well. The operating system has done little to ensure that programs move in and move out in an orderly manner; they can throw supporting files and data all over the hard drive, then leave the junk behind when software is uninstalled. As a result, something that should have been fixed in Win 95 -- the way Windows slowly chokes on the leftovers of old programs -- remains a problem.

Microsoft also did nothing to make the system registry -- the collection of settings that constitutes a single, system-wide point of failure -- less of a nightmare. It should have slain that dragon five years ago, instead of waiting to move away from it in Vista.

Microsoft did get one aspect of system maintenance right in XP -- software updates -- although it needed to ship a major system patch first. With the changes that Service Pack 2 brought in August 2004, you don't have to touch a single setting to have Windows get the latest fixes for you.

But Microsoft has had trouble getting users to trust its automatic updates. Some of the suspicion can be understood (remember how Microsoft installed its "Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications" anti-piracy software through this mechanism), but it becomes self-defeating when people keep copies of XP in a less-secure state because they think somebody in Redmond is out to get them.


The root problem is XP's inability to police the conduct of any program. Its default "administrator" setup grants the user and every application the run of the entire system.

That's why each new Windows-transmitted disease -- such as invasive spyware like Aurora or MoviePass.tv -- is so hard to eradicate. The only guaranteed cure for such infections is to reformat the hard drive and reinstall everything from scratch.

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