Goodnight, sweet prince

So today’s the day support for Windows XP officially ends.*

Windows XP was released to the public on the 25th of October 2001. I remember being nine years old and seeing it on one or two of the computers in my parents’ office. My immediate first thought was “Why not Windows 2001?”, and that’s why they don’t hire nine-year-olds to do their marketing.1

I never liked the blue and green shiny plastic look, even when it was silver or olive. I never much liked the bulky gross start menu either. Up until the day I upgraded to Windows 7 (late 2009), my XP machine sat with a Windows 98 theme and start menu. So, in my own way, I was more backward and nostalgic than your grandmother who’s still running XP on her Pentium 4.

There were a number of things I really liked about Windows XP and still kind of miss in 7 and (the limited experience I’ve had with) 8:

  • Add or Remove Programs being named with an ‘A’ and thus sitting at the top of the Control Panel (now you have to hunt for Programs and Features somewhere in the middle).
  • Sharing random individual folders over the network without password auth was much easier, and it was harder to accidentally give everyone write permission to them. I can’t remember when last I really needed to do this, but it was essential when I was a kid going over to friends’ houses for LANs.2
  • The Maxis pinball game.

As evidenced by the link I posted at the top of this post and other stuff like this, there’s been a real push by Linux evangelists to get people to switch their old XP machines to some variant of Linux instead of just upgrading to 7 or 8. In some ways, that makes sense, in others, not so much.

First the pros:

  • If you’re running an old, slow computer, Linux with the right (preferably minimal) desktop environment (think XFCE, LXDE or one of the many Gnome 2 forks) is likely to run better than swishy flashy Windows 8 or glassy Windows 7.
  • Something like LXDE will also be more similar to the Windows XP you’re used to than Microsoft’s Windows 8 marketing experiment.
  • And of course there’s less chance of viruses and no way to accidentally install browser toolbars and searchpages.
  • As an added bonus, if your XP machine is still running Office 2003 or earlier, you’ll be able to just start reading DOCXs with LibreOffice, no need to deal with that weird ribbon business.3

So there’s a lot going for the switch. In fact, I only really have one con. But it’s a big one:

  • Most people still running Windows XP today are very unlikely to have the ability to change their operating system. Especially not if they have to download an ISO, download a program to write that ISO to a USB stick, find their long-lost USB stick, erase its files making the boot stick and then erase everything on their computer reinstalling the operating system.

Sure, maybe if they have a friend to set it up for them everything will work out (at a stretch, maybe a Live CD would work) but most people cannot change their operating system on their own, much less set up stuff they’ll need like internet connections and printers. Distros of Linux like Ubuntu and Mint have made enormous strides towards ease-of-use, universal compatibility (I had to use my Ubuntu partition to download Windows drivers for my ethernet adapter last time I reinstalled) and general prettiness, but they’re not quite there yet.

And it’s not just Linux. Windows, for all its ubiquity, is not quite a general consumer operating system yet either. You just need to look at any random PC running six PCTuneUp-SpeedUp-RegisteryOptimiserPro variants, four expired antivirus programs, about ten manufacturer bloatware programs and three different searchpage viruses to see why.

Windows 8 removed the start menu because no-one ever uses the start menu. If a program somehow comes unpinned from the taskbar or its desktop shortcut disappears, that means it’s gone and needs to be reinstalled. That’s why the Metro screen is what the user boots into by default – so that they will actually use it in all its disorientating, bifurcated glory.

There’s a great quote from by David Thornburg in an 80s-era edition of the Compute! magazine4:

If you go to someone’s house and see a computer sitting in the den, I’ll bet you say, “Hey, I see you’re into computers. How about that!”

Have you ever gone into someone’s house and said, “Hey! I see you’re into refrigerators. Wow! Automatic ice-cube maker too! I was going to get one of those myself — thought I’d get a 16-cube model, but then I heard that the 32-cubers were going to come out soon.”

If the home computer was an appliance, we would talk about it like one.

Now, you could argue that the computer is an appliance nowadays (it’s certainly present in everyone’s homes) but although we’ve made great strides since the Apple ][s and TRS-80s of yore, computers aren’t quite there yet. Tablets are pretty close – they’re the most intuitive and user-friendly computers ever, just ask your grandmother.

So it’s very easy to see why Microsoft designed Windows 8 like they did. They just wanted to leverage a tablet-style design to make desktop computers easier to use for the average person. It didn’t really work, but you can see it came from the kernel of a good idea.

So I’d feel some apprehension about recommending someone change their Windows XP install to a Linux variant. I think it’s totally doable if they have someone on hand with the know-how and the time to set it up right – if someone really only needs a word processor and a web browser, Linux really isn’t an unfeasible option (and will likely be far more stable than Windows), but it still needs to be set up to the user’s exact needs and specifications, likely by a third party.

Then again, I’d also feel some apprehension about recommending your average consumer upgrade to Windows 7 or 8, or do anything other than throw away their computer and buy a tablet. The problem with a full operating system that gives the user perfect freedom to install all sorts of garbage is it gives them perfect freedom to be taken advantage of by the shysters behind Adware Search and PC TuneUp Malware Pro.

A walled garden appstore environment is the last thing I’d want to be trapped in, but I think it’s the direction consumer computing has to go if we want to reach a point where normal people won’t have to take their agonisingly slow machines in to tech support wizards every other month just to make them work as advertised.

  1. Though these days I’m feeling like they may have changed that policy for UI design.
  2. How else were we to distribute our Linux ISOs and various other freeware and libre applications?
  3. Contrary to the curmudgeonly luddite image I’ve been working on here, I actually really like the ribbon. I mean, I occasionally get into a situation where I don’t know where to find something and wish for the return of the menubar, but Wordart and Clipart – if they even still exist – are hidden far away from everyday tasks, and that’s a win for everybody.
  4. Quote discovered thanks to Jimmy Maher’s excellent Digital Antiquarian blog (this entry in particular). If you’re at all interested in the early history of the home computer and early computer entertainment, I definitely recommend checking out some of his entries.
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