The Battle for XP

The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on. Sometimes people get their ends reversed. When this happens they need a kick in the seat of the pants. -- Theodore Roosevelt

True, President Roosevelt was not discussing Microsoft management when he spoke those words, but were he alive today he might well approve of their use in this case. There is a battle looming in the world of personal computing. A fight that will pit the mighty against a foe that still does not know its own strength: Microsoft against that host of loyal PC users for whom Windows XP is the operating system of choice. Now, before you yawn and wander off, dismissing this as a nerd-centric argument that could never possibly impact your life, let me ask you a question:

If you had a product that worked well, did nearly everything you asked of it and offered greater satisfaction than you had from previous versions; how would you like to be told that you would have to switch to an obviously inferior product because the maker would no longer supply or support the thing that works so well for you?

That is the situation that XP users are in. They like the XP operating system. Why? Windows XP works. It is as simple as that. That is not something you hear in such an absolute way about Microsoft products, but after years on the market, service patches and upgrades, XP is perhaps the most stable, usable operating system to come out of Redmond, Washington in decades. Now, just as PC users have the same reliability as Mac and Linux users, Microsoft is preparing to shove their captive audience to Vista, whether they like it or not.

Not that they can go into each and every machine and install Vista. Well, actually, from the technology point of view, if the computer is hooked to the Internet, they can do that, but then how would they charge you? Instead, no new machines will come with XP, only Vista, and support for XP will be diminished and then, after a suitable period of time, eliminated. Of course, you don’t have to take this, you can go to Linux, the open-source, Unix-based operating system; or you can go to a Mac. In either case, you would actually be moving to a stronger, more crash-resistant operating system and there is nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, it could mean new hardware, a new computer system, and it would certainly mean new software applications. That adds up to a great deal of money, enough to make turning your back on Microsoft economically infeasible. Add in any industry-specific software that may only run on Windows and you are even deeper in the mire.

So there you are, a captive audience being told that you must move on to a product that has a well-earned and terrible reputation. According to USA Today’s Andrew Kantor, “I can say confidently that it's not yet ready for primetime. Yes, it's pretty, and yes it has some nice new features, but they're nothing gotta-have spectacular. Further, Windows XP works very well, but we live in a society that thinks we need to constantly upgrade our stuff. With Vista, I think the pressure to upgrade overwhelmed the testing process. Too many things are going wrong.” Some of the things you can encounter with Vista include problems with the system’s copyright protection system, various difficulties working with files, a tendency to think that it is actually pirated, the odd mandatory hardware upgrade…the list goes on and if you want to indulge yourself just Google “Vista User Problems” and wait for the deluge of blogs and articles.

Of course, Microsoft responded. It took them a year to do it but by March of this year we had Vista Service Pack 1. Here, supposedly, Microsoft took care of well over a hundred issues dealing with hardware, application compatibility, reliability, performance, power consumption, security, new technology support, standards, desktop administration and management, setup and deployment, interoperability, feature or API changes, and a raft of general improvement and enhancements including its alignment with Windows Server 2008.

The Fix List is huge and painfully technical, it boils down to Microsoft’s promise that Vista will play well with others. That is great, but the problem isn’t Vista itself. The problem is the high-handed way that Microsoft is pushing its customer base toward a product that most users still don’t want. In spite of the fixes, Vista’s reputation is so bad that no one considers it an upgrade from XP. In fact, many consumers actually purchase a downgrade when they buy a new PC. They pay to go from Vista to XP. Is that a step backwards? Not if you care more about functionality than flash.

It is also a message, one that the folks at Microsoft need to hear loud and clear. People really don’t want Vista. They don’t trust it and after a year, during which Microsoft did little more than compile user complaints, a service pack is not going to do much to help the non-believer. Microsoft’s response? Have they moved to regain the trust of those burned by their new copies of Vista? No. Do they accept the fact that they need to prove this will work as well as XP? Not even close. Like the missionaries and crusaders of old, if gentle conversion won’t work, use the sword; if the masses won’t convert to Vista, take away the alternative.

Of course, is any of this necessary? Not really. Vista is the result of Microsoft’s occasional desire to reinvent the wheel. Once they had XP so stable, they should have kept it and improved upon it, building on that strength and stability as new technology and capabilities were developed. The agony that has been the Vista experience did not have to happen! However, now that it has and Microsoft thinks they have a handle on it, they are going to push for it.

Is this the action of an industry leader? No, it is the action of a boss. According to President Theodore Roosevelt, “People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader works in the open, and the boss in covert. The leader leads, and the boss drives.” Microsoft is not leading the computing public toward something new and better, it is driving them to something unwanted and unnecessary. The question is, do you have a right to refuse?

After all, you own the computer, even if you are, in essence, leasing the software. Is it not up to you to decide what software you will or will not place on that computer? This has been the core of the arguments over predatory end user license agreements (EULAs) and the right you give companies like Microsoft to install upgrades and other pieces of software as they see fit. I think that it is at the core of this issue as well. You have a right to have something workable and useful running your computer and since Microsoft is, for all intents and purposes, a monopoly, it has a special responsibility that over-rides its rights to make anything they see fit without taking the needs and wants of their consumers into account. Once they do that, once they start driving rather than leading, then it is time to break that monopoly and reintroduce them to the real world of the open market.

Microsoft started small—very small—and now it is a giant. There is opportunity here so the question is: Who is next? Maybe you.

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. – Theodore Roosevelt