XP Invasion Is Imminent

Microsoft announced on Friday that that the “final code” for Windows XP — the new version of the operating system that everyone loves to hate — is complete, and will be sent to computer manufacturers immediately.
The company said that representatives from six computer manufacturers will be in Redmond to receive XP CDs from Bill Gates and Windows chief Jim Allchin, and that the representatives will then depart via XP-emblazoned helicopters.

This makes for a delicious image: Windows XP, besieged by consumer advocates, competitors and the world’s governments, strapping into its very own Enola Gay and unleashing upon an innocent world technology that will forever alter our lives.

But Windows XP is not, in fact, a bomb. The preview-version of the software that was shipped to Wired News about two months ago has been far less explosive than previous incarnations of Windows. XP is based on code written for Windows 2000, which makes its “reliability (go) far beyond previous consumer versions of Windows,” according to the 73-page Reviewer’s Guide that accompanied the software.

So, finally, there’s a home-version of Windows that doesn’t crash all the time — and that’s far-and-away the best thing you can say about this new operating system.

Windows XP will come in two flavors — there’s a “professional” version aimed at businesses, and a home version that will likely be installed on most personal computers available at retailers.

On Friday, the company said that an upgrade version of the home edition will sell for $99, and the standard version will go for $199. The upgrade version of professional XP will also be $199, and the standard version will be $299. (There isn’t a functional difference between the “upgrade” and “standard” versions — if you have an old version of Windows, you can buy the upgrade, and if not, you’ll need the standard.)

Wired News tested the professional version, installed on a Pentium III, 662-MHz machine with 128 MB of RAM and a 20-GB hard drive.

It will take about an hour to install the software on your computer, and it seems to be pretty hassle-free. In three installation attempts (on computers with different configurations), nothing held up the process.

There are, however, some reasons to worry.

Critics of Microsoft have repeatedly attacked the company for “leveraging” its operating system dominance in a manner that gives it an instant advantage in other areas, and Microsoft has refuted the claim, saying that it has to work as hard as anyone else to compete in the application market.

But in fact is it’s impossible for any informed computer user to ignore Microsoft’s attempts in XP to muscle its way into a greater share of our lives. Almost instantly, the solicitations start: The program attempts to set you up for Internet service by making a case for MSN, Microsoft’s Internet service provider. There’s a plea to sign up for Passport, Microsoft’s Internet sign-in service, when you first load up the system. And Microsoft’s Windows Messenger — a chat client that’s the successor to the company’s MSN Messenger — is built into the OS, and it loads up right there, whether you want it or not.

Messenger’s bubble-man icon stays right there in the corner, watching you. And why not? You’ll need it sooner or later, after all. With everyone switching to XP, all your friends will have the Windows Messenger, and the bubble man knows that eventually, you too will break.

That’s the big problem with XP — you feel a bit queasy when you use it, somehow implicated in Microsoft’s grand plans. Ideally, an operating system shouldn’t come with such psychological baggage. When you just want to chat with your friends, you shouldn’t have to worry that you’re abetting a monopoly.

And perhaps that’s why everything in XP is so big and bright — Microsoft’s trying to minimize that sinking feeling. The start button, which in old versions was an elegant gray and black, is lime-green in XP. The menus are sky-blue and have that same kiddie-balloon shape, as do the dialog boxes — which fade in and out of appearance, like in a movie.

It’s all quite a bit too saccharine to stand very long, and while some users may put up with the interface, people who care for their dignity will decide to switch to the “Windows Classic” mode, which is thankfully an easy procedure.

Microsoft has made much of how XP accommodates multimedia better than ever, and to an extent, it does. There’s a movie maker that will compete nicely against Apple’s movie maker, though one hopes that this doesn’t lead to a glut of professional home movies on the Web. The media player, too, is pretty cool, though it also looks like a rip-off of Apple’s stuff.

But in the end, this review and others won’t make a whit of difference in the success of XP. “Critic-proof” is a term used by Hollywood execs for big-budget stinkers like Godzilla and Independence Day that, for all their faults, still make money for their bosses.

How do they do it? People feel they need to see these films — that it’s so well-swirled into the cultural ether that to miss it would be to miss out on something monumental, no matter how bad for you it may be.

Windows XP is critic-proof. It’s a fine operating system, neither wonderful nor dreadful — but you’ll use it because you have to, because to miss out on XP would be to miss out on life.

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