There’s no question that Microsoft has tried hard to make Windows Vista into its flagship desktop product, only to meet a great deal of resistance from end-users and system integrators alike. XP works fine, the critics say; why ditch it? To that end, Microsoft decided to extend XP’s lifetime as a desktop OS — mainstream support for XP will last until April of 2009, and all forms of support for XP will last until 2014. Thirteen years.
This brings up two questions: 1) Why the massive delay with SP3? And 2) has Microsoft shot Vista in the foot by extending XP’s lifetime? These questions are tightly interrelated, which is why I want to answer them together — and the answers I’ve come up with surprised even me.
The simplest explanation for why XP SP3 has been such a long time coming: Vista. That OS required a massive amount of effort on Microsoft’s part. So much so that the scope of what they were initially attempting had to be trimmed back (something commonly used as a point of detraction). The conventional wisdom was that so many of Microsoft’s development resources were redirected from fixing XP into building Vista that XP was getting short shrift. This is partly true, yet there’s another factor that isn’t being taken into consideration.
Vista was, and is, a public proving ground for their new security-centric software development process. After getting hammered on – and rightfully so – for allowing Windows and its attendant applications (mainly Internet Explorer) to become vectors for the delivery of an amazing array of malware, Microsoft dropped back a bit and retrenched. Windows, and Microsoft software in general, would have to become more secure, or it would simply not stand up in a world where security hazards are now being sold to the highest bidder. And so began the introduction of all the security features that current Windows users have taken for granted: the firewall, the locked-down-by-default behavior of IE, and so on.
Under that was another layer of security work conducted largely out of sight — but in many ways every bit as essential, if not more so. This involved an ongoing audit with new software tools to insure that Windows and Microsoft applications would be less vulnerable to common attack vectors such as buffer overflows. People giggled up their sleeves, but so far the results speak for themselves. Since their release, Office 2007 and Vista have not been vulnerable to many of the issues that affected earlier versions of Office and Windows in the same time frame.
Next page: Back-porting to XP
Back-porting to XP
Once Microsoft saw how the new testing protocols were bearing out in the real world, they decided it might not be a bad idea to back-port many of those lessons — plus other things gleaned along the way — into XP itself. XP was and still is Microsoft’s most broadly-used incarnation of Windows, and it would be unwise at best not to apply to XP what they’d learned while developing Vista. Hence, the long wait for SP3, while many of XP’s components have been revised to include ingredients that have incubated, so to speak, in Vista’s development process.
Microsoft has gone on record to say that Vista SP1 isn’t going to introduce much new user functionality into Vista, but XP SP3 is bringing in a bunch of new features for XP — back-ports of things that have already figured into Vista.
Some of these features are under-the-hood, like the new Network Access Protection system used in Vista. Others are slightly more cosmetic but still useful, like the way new installations of XP do not have to have a product key entered at install time. There are still plenty of kernel-level things that are exclusive to Vista, like the I/O prioritization system, which aren’t likely to ever be back-ported to XP, and while they don’t sound like things that would make users break down the doors to get Vista, they prove themselves in hands-on use.
It makes sense to add that much value back into XP when Vista itself has had a rocky start. Driver support for the 64-bit edition was spotty. People groused about the raised system requirements (although, in all fairness, seven years had passed since XP’s release and the baseline for a new system had risen considerably). Early adopters encountered a spate of problems, as early adopters are wont to do, from the TrustedInstaller CPU-hogging issue, to the way Explorer would hang or lag horribly when copying large amounts of files. The CPU issue is still something of a pest, although less so on multi-core systems; the IE issue has already been fixed to a great degree by an interim patch.
Still, all that said, it’s about as rocky a start as XP itself had. And in that light, it makes sense for Microsoft to give XP that much more of a lease on life. It can only do them, and everyone else, good in the long run: it’s that much more goodwill from the users — and they can never have too much of that — and it generates that much more real-world experience they can then in turn re-apply to Windows as a whole. Will it put a dent in Vista sales? Maybe, but people seem to forget that, whether or not you choose XP or choose Vista, you’ve still chosen Microsoft.