As operating systems go, Windows XP has had a fantastic run since debuting 13 years ago. It can be still found on nearly 28 per cent of the desktops in the world. It is the second-most installed desktop operating system, behind Windows 7, and it can be found in banks, government departments, in desktops across China and India, and in automated teller machines (ATMs). So why, as of tomorrow, is Microsoft ceasing support for its iconic operating system?
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When it was released in 2001, Windows XP introduced many features such as built-in support for Wi-Fi and burning CDs, Internet Explorer (IE) 6 web browser, improvements to the user interface and an integrated system management console, setting it apart from its predecessors Windows 2000 and Windows ME.
Windows XP's release also coincided with the boom in worldwide desktop shipments in the early 2000s, especially in emerging markets such as India, China and the Middle East. This ensured that it quickly became the most widely installed desktop operating system in the world.
Companies with Windows XP installations depend on internal services that themselves depend on features only found in this version of the operating system, such as IE 6. Upgrading their desktop installations would also require costly investment in upgrading these services. This has led to tremendous inertia in migrating from Windows XP to more recent operating systems.
Microsoft released three "Service Packs" to upgrade Windows XP and to fix the many security vulnerabilities that were discovered in the course of its usage. Since 2009, Microsoft has provided only security updates for Windows XP. This facility comes to an end on April 8, 2014. This deadline has caused some panic among the current users of the operating system.
Recently, the UK Government was forced to enter into a £5.5 million deal with Microsoft to extend security support for Windows XP installations in the Crown offices for another year. Chinese web giant Tencent has taken on the responsibility of ensuring security updates for XP users in that country.
The Windows family tree
The years have also not been kind to Windows XP. The numerous vulnerabilities in the OS have forced Microsoft to spend significant effort in issuing regular security patches, and wish for its users to move on to relatively secure Windows 7 or 8.
At launch in 2001, XP featured a striking default theme called "Luna", which has been sometimes unkindly compared to the look of a Fischer-Price toy. But today, XP's Luna looks dated compared to the sleek, modern interfaces found on all the newer, major computing platforms.
Internet Explorer 6 is widely considered as the single biggest obstacle in the progress of web-based applications conforming to World Wide Web (W3C) standards.
A 1998 agreement with the US Department of Justice forced Microsoft to decouple its web browser from the rest of the OS and allowed alternative browsers such as Opera, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox to become successful.
Three years ago, Microsoft itself advised that consumers upgrade to later versions of Internet Explorer such as IE 9 and above.
Microsoft itself has faced the curse of Star Trek movies (even-numbered instalments are better than the odd-numbered) in upgrading its users to newest version of Windows. Vista, the successor to XP, was widely panned for its heavy system requirements and pervasive prompts for user authorisation of activities.
On the other hand, Windows 7, released in 2009, is the most popular desktop operating system today. Its successor, Windows 8, was designed to address both touch interaction in tablets, and mouse and keyboard interaction in desktops in Windows 8. However, this resulted in a few omissions, notably the lack of a "Start" button, that confused and infuriated many users.
And while Windows is still dominant on the desktop, the world is moving faster towards other computing platforms. The Apple iPhone, introduced in 2007, provided users with a mobile, always-connected device to browse the web and communicate instantly.
The advent of low-cost, low powered laptops, called netbooks, forced Microsoft to continue offering XP as an alternative to open source software Linux. The introduction of Apple iPad and its competitors not only put paid to this category, but also provided users with an alternative to desktops for tasks such as document creation, messaging and web browsing.
What now for operating systems?
Desktop shipments have been stagnant for a few years and there is little chance of a revival in near future. Resource-heavy computing tasks are being migrated to data centre in a trend known as cloud computing.
Microsoft has acknowledged this by not only offering a cloud-hosted version of its Office suite, called Office 365, but a version for the Apple iPad as well.
Thus, the end of support for Windows XP also coincides with the end of the age of the desktop. There will be less fanfare around operating system updates, and less mourning when an OS rides off into the sunset.
Srikumar Venugopal PhD is a Lecturer in Computer Science and Engineering at University of New South Wales. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.