BftP – Windows XP, Vista, and Nostalgia

Windows XP – best release ever?

When Windows Vista came out, the Internet howled from one end to the other – it was awful. “Bring back Windows XP!” people shouted. “Windows XP was the best Windows ever made!” was a common cry. Then Windows 7 dropped and almost everyone forgot all about Vista. Windows XP has been venerated as one of the best operating systems Microsoft ever produced – as good as Windows 98 SE – while Windows Vista is basically the ME of the 2000s. But were the comparisons really fair? Was Windows XP really as good as we remember it? And what of the new Windows upgrade cycles? People rant and rave about the ‘short’ time periods between Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8 and then Windows 10. Is this valid? For this Blast from the Past, we look over the releases of Windows starting with Windows 95.

Chicago and Memphis – The Win9x Days

Computing in the mid 90s was changing. It was exciting. I’d grown up in the DOS Days – where you had to get intimate with your computer to get even simple things running properly. If you wanted sound in Doom, you needed to have a good understanding of your hardware… and when things didn’t work, there wasn’t a lot of help available. Windows 3 was pretty cool, but it didn’t succeed in doing what Windows 95 ultimately did – make computers much easier to use. Windows 95 was a revelation. Suddenly, difficult tasks became much less difficult. Drivers were a pain in the arse, but way less than they were on DOS. You’d install a game, and it’d just work… sort of. Mostly. Usually. Compared to installing something on DOS it was much easier. The framework of the Win95 kernel and operating system was revolutionary, and it propelled PCs into a new era.

Windows 95 wasn’t without problems though, and anyone who used it will remember episodes of the infamous blue screens of death – usually when trying to install drivers for various devices. While it was much easier to use than DOS, it had its issues – and plenty of people found that out when it first released in 1995. But by and large it was an awesome operating system that made computing much easier, and opened the doors to much more powerful software and games – DirectX entered the world of PC gaming during this era, and Direct3D rapidly became the default rendering pathway choice for many devs as the era wore on.

Additionally, upgrading from a modest DOS computer was sometimes a big step – usually requiring additional RAM. This was an era when the Pentium processors were just starting to emerge and be installed in desktop PCs, so for many upgrading to Windows 95 was a massive step. I can still remember people debating how much RAM was enough to run Windows 95. And compatibility was an issue too – some DOS games simply wouldn’t work in Win95, and you’d have to resort to boot disks to play them.

In 1998, Windows 98 was released, with the venerable Windows 98 Second Edition being released in 1999. Windows 98 brought many new improvements to Windows 95 – the FAT32 file system, better USB support, and also integrated Internet Explorer and the Internet in ways that prompted questions on anti-trust and monopolies. Windows 98 SE – considered by many to be the most stable of the Win9x releases – added additional device drivers, fixed a load of minor issues, as well as a host of subsystem improvements. Win98 SE was the OS that most people I knew back then used – because it was awesome. Hardly anyone complained about it.

But there was another kernel, another OS, which Microsoft had running parallel to the Win9x kernel – Windows NT. WinNT had been kicking around for a while and was aimed at being a workstation OS, and was the first fully 32bit kernel Microsoft made. The design of WinNT was much more robust and capable than that of the 16/32bit hybrid Win9x ‘consumer’ operating systems, and was mainly used in corporate enviroments. It was also portable, able to run on a load of different architectures. While it was in many ways much more advanced than the 98x line, it also lacked a lot of compatibility, particularly with 16bit software, thus it didn’t see much use in the consumer market.

But that was all going to change.

Whistler – The Road to Windows XP

The 98x kernel was doomed. Microsoft released Windows ME to continue the line in 2000, but it was ageing even by that period. Commonly thought of as unstable and rushed to market, WinME is largely forgotten and written off as an awful operating system. It exists in a weird vacuum – a space left by the failed Neptune project, and the coming revolutionary OS known as Whistler – one that would spell the end of the 9x kernel and bring the NT kernel to home computers. Windows ME was awful.

Parallel to this was Windows 2000 – released in December 1999, it was the next in the NT line of operating systems. Windows 2000 was a modern operating system that didn’t quite acheive a lot of home computer market penetration due to running on the NT kernel. Lots of home users still ran a lot of legacy software, and Win9x was perfect for this, particularly with the SE line. But for businesses and home business users, Win2000 was great… and a few people did use it at home, those who didn’t want to run much in the way of legacy software, since it did include DirectX. Windows 2000 was a glimpse of things to come…

Why did we need to shift kernels? Why did the NT kernel need to enter the home market? The answer lies in the somewhat oudated 9x kernel and its single user design. Many people have overplayed MS-DOS and its role in Win9x releases. Win9x isn’t an ‘overlay’ or program for MS-DOS. DOS simply provides the bootloader and 16bit compatibility. Compare that with Windows 3, where you could exit Windows and go back to MS-DOS. This doesn’t happen with the Win9x releases – there’s an option to ‘reboot in MS DOS mode’ but it isn’t really DOS.

While DOS did need to finally die, it isn’t the sole reason NT took over. The NT kernel was simply much more stable, much more secure, and having to maintain only one kernel was better for MS rather than the current two kernel model. There’s a lot more to it than that – but kernels are complex, and that’s the basic gist of it – the NT kernel is simply better. Thus, Win9x had to die – and it was going to die with Codename Whistler, the next MS OS.

Windows XP and Longhorn

Windows XP released in 2001, and it was a revolution, but I can remember loads of people being skeptical of updating – namely because of increased system requirements or because of fears over compatibility. The NT kernel was awesome, but it took some time for many to migrate. On release, if you were into games, the general consensus was that Win98 SE was better – particularly if your RAM was limited (and hardware wasn’t cheap back then).

Windows XP received three Service Packs. I remember that WinXP became mostly loved around SP2, released in 2004, by which point the 9x kernel had pretty much been left in the dust by the progessive march of new hardware. The NT kernel was simply much better when paired with suitable hardware, and as the upgrades flowed, WinXP just got better and better.

During this process, a new operating system was in development – codenamed Longhorn, it was supposed to be released in 2003, sort of like Win98 was to Win95. This was keeping up with the original Windows release schedule – release a big change, then release something in between, then move into another big change. But Longhorn’s development – as anyone who was following it at the time will remember – turned into a protracted development hell. Most people just remember leaked screenshots with a massive sidebar filled with widgets, but in actuality it was supposed to come with a new file system (WinFS) along with a host of other features.

In 2003 however, it became clear that Longhorn wasn’t going to work – and development basically had to be reset. Microsoft received a shock when OS X Tiger was released with a limited set of features slated for Longhorn – and were dismayed at how far behind Longhorn’s development was. It didn’t help that there were teams working on their own features, assembling their own builds for testing and incorporating things into the main build. Code quickly became compartmentalised, reducing dependencies, and the new version was based on code for Windows Server 2003 SP1.

Vista and Beyond

Vista dropped in November 2006… and it was hated. The first new release since 2001, and the arguments came thick and fast – it’s too slow, it requires too many resources, it breaks compatibility with some games… ironically, many of the same complaints that were levelled at Vista were around when Windows XP came out. Vista had a new kernel and, most significantly, a new display driver model – one that NVIDIA and AMD still didn’t have decent drivers for. The new Windows Display Driver Model was vastly superior to anything in Windows XP, with proper multi GPU support, and the ability to recover the OS if the display driver should crash. But when Vista first came out, it was a mess. It got better with new hardware and improved display driver support, but that initial release is what earned it the most hate. People latched onto the “WinXP was awesome!” line, forgetting what it was like back in August 2001, upgrading to an OS that ate more RAM and broke some apps.

Windows 7 was released in 2009 – and it was basically an improved Vista, the incremental upgrade we all wanted. It’s the equivalent of Win98 to Win95, and everyone seemed to forget that it was basically a refined version of Vista. Windows 8 dropped in 2012, and Windows 10 in 2015 – prompting some to become cynical about the “constant operating system updates”. How quickly we forget.

So what’s the point?

“That’s an interesting trip down memory lane, Officer Soldant,” I hear you say, “but so what? What’s your point?”

My points are thus:

  • The current “every few years” release schedule has always been the plan with Windows – anybody who thinks differently wasn’t around for the Win9x days. Windows XP’s extended life was never intentional and was an unintended side effect of Longhorn’s development hell/feature creep. Microsoft didn’t want WinXP to last that long.
  • With each major kernel revision, things get upset and people hate the move. The transition to WinXP was traumatic for many – especially moving to the NT kernel – and lots of people refused to budge for a while after release. It was no different with Vista – it’s just that we have less patience for it these days.
  • Part of that reason is because the gap between Vista and XP was so remarkably long – practically unheard of in the consumer OS space. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. We were stuck in an OS that was basically released in 2001, in a world that now had multicore x86-64 CPUs as the default choice for new builds. It was time to move on, but the OS had stood still in that time. That made the move even harder.
  • Windows 7 seems much better in comparison because the cycle of upgrades basically reset with Vista – Vista was supposed to be a bridge to the new tech in Windows 7, but instead ended up being the revolutionary step. Windows 7 simply capitalised on that with more development time… and the average hardware profile managed to catch up in the meantime.
  • The old saying of “Every 2nd Windows release is good” is nonsense. If you ignore Windows 2000 (part of the NT line, not aimed at home users), and start at Windows 95, you’d get Windows ME (if you cound 98SE as a release… which you should, since it’s easily the best of the 9x line). The fact is that any major OS revision will have teething issues and will seem to be worse than the previous one – until support catches up.
  • Windows XP is beloved and receives its venerable position because of that long life that it had – an extended life that nobody actually wanted to occur. It got much better as time went on. It’s time that made it such a good OS that is remembered fondly – it certainly wasn’t born that way.

Of course, we’ve now ended the era of regular updates – Windows is now a service, and Windows 10 is a platform to build from, not a discrete release. We’ve left behind the era of a new OS every 3 or so years. That means we’ve probably left behind the jarring upgrade cycles from the past, and future users probably won’t even remember what it was like to upgrade from an earlier OS like it was in the 90s and 2000s. Can’t say I’ll miss it though!

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