Windows XP and iPod: A tale of two birthdays
Unwanted versus unforgettable
This week is remarkable for two 10-year computing anniversaries: that of the Apple iPod and of Microsoft's Windows XP.
Both should be celebrated for their success and impact on consumers and tech sector.
But while Apple's iPod will be celebrated in the history of its creator and – no doubt – the annals of computing history as a landmark device, Windows XP has become an inconvenience to Microsoft. XP has lived on despite outrageous circumstance and determined attempts by Microsoft to kill it. The OS is destined one day to become little more than a footnote on a version-history page of Wikipedia.
Ten years after it arrived, Apple's personal music player today holds 73 per cent of the US MP3 music player market, down from a giddy 92 per cent nearer to its launch.
Launched on 23 October 2001 to skeptical critical opinion, the iPod breathed fresh life into what was an uninteresting and forgotten category of consumer devices: the MP3 player.
Apple's player teamed sleek, touchable, cigarette-packet-sized design (initially) with fingertip-scrolling and playing that quickly got you to the music. Apple married this with an online music, film and apps store while the design idea as well as the player leapt to the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad.
In the aftermath of Steve Jobs' death, it has become de rigueur to associate each of Apple's successes with his genius vision and Midas-like touch.
But it wasn't Jobs who came up with the idea for the iPod: that was entrepreneur Tony Fadell, a contractor and hardware expert who had worked at General Magic and Philips. Fadell is the man who dreamed up the idea to take "an MP3 player, build a Napster music sale service to complement it, and build a company around it."
Fadell shopped his idea to other consumer electronics companies but they didn't bite.
Apple did bite: it hired Fadell in early 2001, giving him a team of designers, programmers and hardware engineers to work on manufacture in tight secrecy with PortalPlayer, since bought by Nvidia. It was Jobs' infinite and exacting interference and nit-picking that gave us a player that had near total market saturation and is only now slowly sliding back to something approximating a commercially acceptable level of market share.
It wasn't just the player that won it, though. iPod actually fell by more than half after a promising first quarter in 2002. What differentiated the iPod against other MP3 players was the music store, the second component of the Fadell vision. In 2003, iTunes opened with just 200,000 songs but priced at 99¢ each. Support for Windows in the second-generation iPod in 2002 then took Apple's player to a wider audience and by 2004 iPod sales more than quadrupled to four million.
There have been imitators: having allowed Apple to conduct the all-important litmus test on consumer tastes, Microsoft offered its own MP3 player, the Zune, which promptly flopped.
Microsoft's Windows XP officially launched on 25 October 2001.
As with the iPod, Microsoft had a heavy consumer focus for its operating system. But unlike Apple, Microsoft didn't keep the development of Windows XP secret. In fact, there was a lot of discussion by Microsoft and others about the significance of Windows XP.
Windows XP was important because it marked the final convergence of Microsoft's two code bases: 9.x for the desktop – which embraced Windows 3.0, Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows ME – and Windows NT, Microsoft's workstation and server operating system intended to answer Netware and Unix.
Microsoft's then Windows chief Jim Allchin, an executive famed for shying away from publicity, stepped into the spotlight to explain Windows XP and its importance to consumer and business users. Allchin promised dependability, reliability and ease of use. Speaking just before the Windows XP launch event 10 years ago, Allchin said:
We did a good job with Windows 2000, but there are weaknesses. We drove up quality, but didn't do a great job with hardware and software compatibility. We didn't try to change the experience. It wasn't task-oriented. So now we're taking that foundation and addressing the problems. We're improving the experience, and the quality of this release will be even higher than it was in Windows 2000. With Windows XP, the focus is on improving the activities you do with the machine. We're making features more discoverable than they were in Windows 2000 or Windows Me.
What gave Windows XP legs?
Windows XP would have been just another Windows operating system, released, updated and sidelined by its successor, had it not been for fate. Windows XP was the first in a planned three-step roadmap of operating systems codenamed Whistler, Longhorn and Blackcomb. Longhorn became Windows Vista, but delays to Windows Vista gave Window XP an additional three years on desktops to become the de facto standard for business and consumer users.
What gave Windows XP legs? One was these delays to Windows Vista and the hostile reception it received. When Windows Vista eventually shipped in 2006 and 2007, customers and businesses preferred to stay with the past.
Another factor playing in Windows XP's favour were delayed upgrades to Windows XP from older versions of Windows. Businesses shied away from Windows XP after it joined Windows 2000 in being savaged by Nimda, Sasser and Blaster worms plus their derivations, mutations and other worms that exploited network holes to crash PCs and take over people's inboxes to propagate their payloads. It wasn't until the Windows XP Service Pack 2 in 2004 that businesses began to upgrade in numbers and with confidence.
The last thing that helped Windows XP was netbooks. Windows Vista demanded far too much memory and CPU for the average netbook at a time when netbooks were the popular portable form factor computing device before the iPad. More netbooks meant more room for Windows XP.
Despite its history, there's today no love at Microsoft for this long-lasting desktop veteran. It is vital to Microsoft's sales and growth that Windows XP stick-in-the-muds upgrade immediately, if not sooner, to Windows 7.
Windows XP is dead, and Microsoft wants you to move on to the successor to Windows Vista. Allchin, the man who lead Windows XP and Windows Vista, has also moved on – only in a different way. Allchin has left tech completely and is now re-inventing himself as a musician.
Ten years to the month after Windows XP launched, it has only just been overtaken by Windows 7 to become the world's most popular desktop operating system. Windows 7 is now has 40.18 per cent of the market, with Windows XP only just behind. The switch came a year after Microsoft released Windows 7.
Windows 7 won't match Windows XP for shelf life and the future is already calling time on Windows 7. It's not just that Windows 8 is already in the works, it's the fact Windows 8 will put Windows on ARM tablets for the first time, a huge departure that will stand out in the history of both Microsoft and of computing – and probably ensure that Windows 8 eclipses Windows 7.
Microsoft has also learned the mistakes of Windows XP. A former Microsoft insider working at the Windows group when Windows XP was being built and who wished to remain anonymous, tells The Reg that flags were already being raised on potential security problems before Windows XP shipped.
Windows XP fell initially because it combined a code for a desktop not built for networking and a server used to the serene world of the data centre rather than life on the wild, wild internet.
Our ex-Microsoft man tells us of Windows XP: "There were voices at Microsoft saying: 'You need to something about security', and they [management] said: 'We know what we are doing'. The people running Windows hadn't been though that thing before and they didn't listen. It was probably arrogance."
Just months after Windows XP, a humbled Bill Gates had announced the Trustworthy Computing initiative to shift from focusing on features to spotlighting security and privacy.
When it comes to music players, meanwhile, Microsoft has given up on the idea of beating the iPod with a Zune device, and is following Apple by putting its music player on a smartphone. In Microsoft's case, it's smartphones running Windows Phone.
As for Apple's iPod, it's not clear what happens next. With the latest iPod Touch, all that's changing is the version of iOS running inside and the – gasp – yes, addition of a white case. iPod sales are also spiking down, as Apple customers shift to the iPhone and iPad as a music-playing device.
Fadell, meanwhile, has long since left Apple and now turned his attention to smart thermostats. ®