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WinXP: why it's the Big One that could make MS bigger yet

And like it or not, why it can't be ignored

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XP diaries Just one flame so far about yesterday's comment that WinXP is "rock-solid stable," but actually it's refreshing to be called a serf, rather than the more usual worm, turd, Commie-Keynsian Linux-loving European et al. I fear this is likely to change, because today I propose to cover the topic of why Microsoft operating systems win, and why XP is a likely candidate to continue, possibly even extend the process.

Naturally I mean why they win other than because they're marketed by a brutal, protectionist monopoly that strangles babies. Although as you'll see, that kind of relates.

As longer-suffering readers will recall, late last year I started playing around with an early XP beta and numerous flavours of Linux. I haven't written up progress since, largely because there hasn't been much significant, but I've been kind of continuing the exercise at the same time as bringing new hardware on stream. Most of the software I've accumulated has at least bounced off most of the hardware, and while the sample certainly doesn't have statistical relevance, I'm going to claim some validity for the exercise anyway. That's arts graduates for you.

The various systems used are as follows: the weird Fujitsu-Siemens Jetson I started with; a brace of Athlon machines with Geforce 2 cards, one of them using an Asus DDR mainboard; and the ThinkPad 600. The latter is my production machine, but I've got a spare hard drive that can just be slammed in, so weird stuff can be tested without my paralysing the whole show.

The bottom line so far is that XP installs simply and easily on all of them, doing some kind of job of detecting the hardware, the network etc, and that Linux bounces off the Athlon state of the art, but installs nicely on the ThinkPad. All of this of course has nothing to do with the stability of the respective operating systems once they're installed, but it is a pointer to why Microsoft operating systems win; non-Microsoft operating systems generally fall into the 'some assembly required' category, unless the hardware is something as known and established as a ThinkPad, and if you don't have the time or the inclination to do that assembly, Microsoft is sitting there as the easy option. And Microsoft knows that, and plays to that strength.

Despite the ease of Linux (Mandrake) install, incidentally, I still haven't got around to getting the ThinkPad connected to the outside world. The beta software for the internal modem looks like it'll take a deal of head-scratching, nailing down a PC Card modem that isn't a Winmodem and is supported by Linux is a hassle, and there seems to be some kind of issue with suspend. I know Winmodem is a Microsoft trap, and that it's not fair, but Microsoft's ability to call the shots is a fact, another strength for the company, and a tricky one to deal with. Also in the OS lists I should mention Solaris, which does install on one of the Athlon machines (not the DDR one), but which doesn't support nVidia, and apparently has no plans to. Close Scott, but no cigar - 16 colour in 640x480? Yuk. And can it be that hard for you to notice the NT 4.0 server chugging away in the corner?

From Microsoft's point of view drivers are part of a virtuous circle. The hardware manufacturers have to support Windows if they want to sell in any volumes at all, and if that means having to produce drivers on Microsoft's terms, and jump when Microsoft says jump, so be it. This results in a lot of out-of-box hardware support in Microsoft operating systems, gives Microsoft's developers the necessary tools that make the installation procedure more bulletproof and joyous and - oh yes - does have something to do with all of those arguments about monopolies (there, I told you I'd get back to the baby strangling).

Microsoft gains muscle from this process, so it can tighten the ratchets, and so on. Beefing Windows Update into a centralised depository for all approved XP drivers is simply the next logical stage in the process, and beefing up the warnings about unsigned drivers is just another stick to beat the hardware manufacturers with. Course it's not fair, but there it is.

Before you all start (those of you who didn't start four paragraphs ago, anyway), I'm not arguing that Microsoft software supports everything, or that the drivers you wind up with are always best of breed. But it does generally get you airborne to some extent, leaving you with time on your hands to bitch about proper drivers, if that's what you want to do.

Now, as you'll recall from where I came in with XP beta 1, I first tried the OS on the Jetson, a reasonable spec Pentium III machine with 128 megs of RAM. It worked OK, and I was pottering along fairly happily until the kids pointed out that the Intel 810 graphics were dog-slow. Well, now you mention it...

Which is where the Athlon machines came from. One's destined for XP airtime in the office, the other for home, and both are intended to multi-boot operating systems, so the Linux investigations aren't dead; but Sun can go hang if they think I'm buying another graphics card - ship me a Sparc box, suckers.

The test machine I've got with me at the moment is the Asus DDR (512 megs) and Athlon 1.2Ghz version with the Asus graphics card, and is the first one to be running beta 2. The initial install gave me a working system, figuring out the Realtek (sorry, cheapskate attack) Ethernet card on its own but not getting any further than a generic Geforce driver, and not identifying the motherboard multimedia. That's maybe a puzzle because the other Athlon machine uses an Asus board with similar capabilities (the difference is it's PC133), and I'm pretty sure the multimedia was detected out of the box on an earlier WinXP build.

Whatever, although not everything is immediately supported, I did get an operational system to build on, rather than just a mysterious death during installation to figure out. The Asus Win2k drivers for the graphics and the board installed fine, albeit with warning shrieks from the WinXP driver polizei, and it's mostly running OK. The one suspicious bit is the Elsa USB modem I mentioned yesterday, which does show up in the device manager, but which may also be related to the unknown USB device that also shows up. That's doubly suspicious because the modem does work under Win98 SE on the same machine, so there might just be something weird about WinXP's USB support so far.

The other machine XP is on is the ThinkPad. Not on the hard disk I'm writing this onto right now of course, on the four gig hard drive I unplugged earlier. Getting it onto the ThinkPad was slightly surprising, because I'd shoved an earlier build into the CD drive without any great expectations and wasn't at all surprised when it bombed almost immediately with a line 552 or somesuch error message. I assumed some kind of hardware spec check then and didn't bother trying to get around it.

If there was a check, however, it's gone in beta 2, because that does install, despite the hardware being well below Microsoft's XP spec. As yet I'm not sure how horrible it'll be to try to use the machine with XP, but with 96 megs of RAM on board right now (more when I can get the other 32 meg module back off Smitty) and its dismal Pentium II 233Mhz it's at least capable of some light Web browsing. If the extra memory can be used to good effect by XP, then it might just about be viable, especially as the current production OS, Win98 SE, is tripe at handling larger amounts of memory, and was going to get pensioned-off in favour of Mandrake RSN anyway.

On top of that, there's a bunch of stuff that's been added to XP to make your life easier, and switching at least some of that off can drastically reduce the memory footprint. There's a whole list of this here, at ETplanet. Even if you're not running XP it's worth a read, if you fancy scaring yourself about some of the stuff that's in there. "Retrieves the serial number of any portable music player connected to your computer"? Well I never...

Trying to run XP on older hardware will however likely turn out to be something of a solitary and esoteric perversion. That's not in the slightest what Microsoft has in mind for it. It'll have some importance as an upgrade OS for reasonably contemporary kit, but it'll be far more important as a preload on new PCs (where of course all the drivers will be pretty much up to snuff), and on new devices like the Tablet PC. XP's a solid (sorry, said it again) base for numerous classes of platform, so long as those platforms start at Pentium III and 128 megs. Microsoft can and will convert its desktop monopoly based on Win9x and NT into a single one based on XP. Win9x is a wobbly OS, XP is a decent one, and with just the one, effective flagship to support, Microsoft can embrace and extend a lot more. Like it or not, it's a contender.

Coming soon: A look at the alleged new UI, "Luna," differences between XP Professional and Consumer edition, some more about product activation, and maybe fun with Media Player and IE6. But not necessarily in that order...

* By the way, even though none of you asked me about the XP wristwatch I'm going to tell you anyway. Watches, as you know, are cheap and keep time faultlessly. These days they don't break - so sourcing one that does takes real talent. Well done, Microsoft. In the goodie bag they gave me at the beginning of the month was a snazzy sports watch with the XP logo on it. It worked fine until I noticed the afternoon's mowing seemed to be going on forever, and wondered how come it could still be only 1:20. Reset it, then spend the next afternoon building cupboards. Again, it always seems to be just after lunchtime. Put it right again, hit it experimentally and - yup - it resets to 1am on 1st January.

Take the back off, press the little plate that's exposed - yup - reset. If the Xbox is of similar quality Microsoft's in real trouble, but in the meantime the company should tell its watch suppliers to put a little rubber gasket on the inside to stop the hardware shorting out. Meanwhile, XP watch users should move slowly and deliberately... ®

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