Posted by mike in Computers at 10:30 pm on January 17, 2007

The replacement hard drive and software CDs that Dell sent (as explained in my last post) arrived yesterday, pleasantly ahead of schedule. It’s been quite a while since the last time I installed Windows XP, and the experience was somewhat of a trip down memory lane of times I’d rather leave in the past (and, for the most part, I have).

My first reminder of just how long ago it really was when XP was first released was when, at the end of “Part 1,” I was reminded prior to rebooting: “If there is a floppy disk in drive A:, remove it.” I realize we’re only talking about 5 or so years ago, but the concept that people were still using floppy disks to boot their PCs to install an operating system that’s still in wide use today was sort of a shock to me.

The fun was just starting, though. During “Part 2” of the Windows XP installation, the user is shown a series of screens full of marketing hype, the purpose of which is presumably to get him or her psyched up about the OS being installed (and have something to read during the half-hour-plus installation). Some of the messages are quaint pieces of nostalgia:

Built-in fax support helps you send faxes directly from your favorite programs and receive faxes right from your computer.

Wow, really? How can I learn more about this new-fangled “fax” technology you speak of?

With Movie Maker, you just transfer movies from your analog or digital video camera to your computer, then put your favorite clips together (and cut out the ones you don’t like), add music, narration, and title slides–even still photographs.

Remember analog video cameras? Remember when basic video editing on a commodity PC was a fairly novel concept?

The installation later goes on to proudly boast that Windows XP is even capable of running “programs with full-color graphics, video, 3-D animation, or surround sound,” as well as kindly pointing out that “CD-Recordable (CD-R) drives and CD-ReWritable (CD-RW) drives are now affordable options on most home computers.”

Maybe it should be viewed as impressive, in a way, that Microsoft produced an operating system at a time when floppies were still the norm and CD-R drives were just becoming “affordable” that has managed to rule the desktop PC market for over 5 years now. But when viewed in the context of all of its failures, some of the claims and promises made by the Windows XP installation program are just funny:

“Windows XP Home Edition not only starts faster than any previous version of Windows, but it also runs your programs more quickly and reliably than ever. If a program becomes unstable, you can close it without having to shut down windows or lose any of your work.”

Remember the promise of real job control? Remember how well they delivered on that? Neither do I. It seems like more and more often, when a process on my Windows XP box hangs or locks up (something that happens altogether too frequently as it is), it takes the whole OS down with it. Oh, sure, Windows acts like it’ll let you kill that one disobedient application and continue working. But I can’t count how many times I’ve sat there clicking on the “End Task” button over and over again, without the OS ever deciding to acknowledge me. Meanwhile, the runaway program sits there, most of its window filled with nothing but blank unresponsive whiteness, happy to continue ignoring me. And that’s not even touching on the all-to-common situation when the program that stops responding is explorer.exe, the user interface shell. The installation procedure, though, was sure to remind me that I was installing “the most reliable Windows ever,” which is sort of like referring to the least unpleasant rape you’ve ever experienced.

“Windows XP features the most secure version of Internet Explorer to date.”

This one just has to be a blatant lie. If the program PC World named #8 on its 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time list was actually more secure than its predecessors, then they must’ve been completely vulnerable at all times and we just don’t remember it– IE6’s reputation is legendary. This is an even more dubious statement when you consider that I was installing Windows XP SP2, which was released in late August of 2004, after IE6 had already proven its track record.

I was reminded of a couple other embarrassing failures during the installation process, too: Fast User Switching, Microsoft’s latest attempt to demonstrate how poorly they understand the concept of a multi-user system, and the Windows Firewall, which was short-sightedly not included in the original release (it was part of Service Pack 1), and naively did not default to being enabled until SP2.

I think the whole story of XP was summed up well by a Washington Post article that describes how “the operating system has met only a few of its goals while falling short of others in a catastrophic manner.” Thinking about Microsoft’s optimism when XP came out made me even more skeptical than I already am about Vista. If the industry is cursed enough to be dominated by Vista in 2012 (a prospect I’m very dubious of), I’m expecting a “look back” similar to this one to be even sadder.