Windows XP Reaches 20: A Retrospective


October 25, 2021

Microsoft Windows XP

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On 25th October 2001, Microsoft released Windows XP to the world. It went on to become the most-used version of Windows ever, saw over 12 years of support, and introduced a generation to the PC. On its 20 birthday, we take a look back at the history and impact of Windows XP.

A Brief History

The late 90’s were an interesting time at Microsoft. At the time, Windows consisted of two separate branches – the MS-DOS based Windows 9x, and the NT based Windows NT.

The first product of the Windows NT line, NT 3.1, was released in 1993. It was named to sit alongside the DOS-based Windows 3.1, which was current at the time. Visually, NT 3.1 was designed to be as similar to Windows 3.1 as possible. The difference between the two lay under the surface.

MS-DOS was a 16 bit OS, and ran very well on the typical hardware available in the early 90’s. Windows NT was 32 bit, and while the design of NT had many improvements over MS-DOS, it required much more powerful hardware to run. For this reason, early releases of NT were targeted towards servers and workstations, which were more likely to have the hardware for it to run smoothly.

After the successes of both Windows 95 and 98 on the desktop, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates announced in 1998 that Windows 98 SE would be the last version of Windows based on MS-DOS, with the future of home versions instead being based on Windows NT. It was deemed that hardware performance had improved sufficiently to run NT on the hardware available to the general consumer.

In fact, one final DOS based release, Windows Me, followed 98 SE, with this changed announced by Microsoft President Steve Ballmer in 1999. This time though, Microsoft stuck to their word, and no further DOS based versions of Windows were released.

Initial plans still kept the consumer and workstation versions of Windows separate. The successor to Windows Me was codenamed ‘Neptune’ (styalised internally as ‘NepTune’), with the successor to Windows 2000, the latest NT based version at the time, was known as ‘Odyssey’. Development of both would be based off of Windows 2000.

Both systems were planned to feature a new user interface based on HTML. Originally planned for Windows Me, ‘Activity Centers’ would replace the existing Win32 based UI. It is theorised that the use of HTML would justify the inclusion of Internet Explorer in the OS – at the time, Microsoft was facing an antitrust lawsuit over the bundling of software into the OS.

One build of Windows Neptune, versioned 5111, was released to testers – 5111 is the only known build of Neptune. If you’re interested, it is possible to grab a copy and try it out for yourself; expect issues though.

Windows Neptune desktop
Windows Neptune desktop, with an Activity Center enabled.

Odyssey, however, never saw the light of day – it is believed it was cancelled before it progressed past the concept phase.

In December 1999, on the eve of the release of both Windows 2000 and Windows Me, Microsoft announced a consolidation of their development efforts, merging the Neptune and Odyssey projects to form a new project, codenamed ‘Whistler’.

This marks the beginning of the Windows XP story.

Development Reset

The Whistler team ditched plans for the new HTML based UI, with a new focus on delivering more rapid Windows releases, with fewer feature updates in each.

Consumer oriented features missing from Windows 2000 (such as Windows Movie Maker) were ported over from Windows Me.

Two versions of XP would be made available; Home Edition, as a replacement for Windows Me, and Professional Edition, primed to replace Windows 2000.

Windows XP was released to manufacturing on August 24th 2001, with general availability coming on 25th October 2001.

A Fresh New Look

The most distinctive feature of Windows XP is the stock blue theme, a huge departure from the boxy grey taskbar/window controls of its predecessors. While some criticised the somewhat childish appearance, it shows the desire within Microsoft to make the system more inviting to novice PC users. The infamous ‘Bliss’ default background is probably one of the most viewed photo’s of all time.

XP desktop
This really doesn’t need a caption, does it?

The start menu featured many enhancements. The traditional single-column design was replaced with a new two-column layout, with regularly used applications and documents showing on the left-hand side. Users were able to pin applications to this area to give easier access.

The taskbar gained support for grouping windows, saving space when multiple windows were open for the same application.

It remained possible to switch back to the classic theme from older versions (aptly named ‘Windows Classic’), as well as allowing new themes to be installed. For most users, however, the default blue theme, named ‘Luna’, would be the familiar face of Windows XP.

Enhanced Features

For a Windows 9x user, Windows XP saw a massive jump up in terms of system stability. System files are hidden from the user by default, to prevent the user inadvertantly deleting important files. Also included is a system file checker, to monitor and maintain the integrity of important files.

To improve boot times, and new prefetching system was introduced. The prefetcher analyses file accesses for up to 120 seconds after the system has booted up. This information is then used to optimise the location of files on disk, to make subsequent boots faster.

The NTFS file system provided many benefits over the FAT file system used by 9x, including file/folder permissions, support for files over 4GB in size, and built in disk compression. NTFS also allows disk quotas, meaning users can be allocated a set amount of space on the system.

Many features from the Windows 9x line were deprecated, and did not feature in XP.

Windows Genuine Annoyance

Windows XP saw the intoduction of two new product activation technologies – Microsoft Product Activation, and Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA).

While previous versions of Windows required a valid product key to allow installation, a key could theoretically be used an infinite number of times, on multiple systems. Microsoft Product Activation was the first time the key was tied to the hardware it was running on. A limited number of hardware changes were required before the system needed to be reactivated, a point which received criticism for impacting users who wished to upgrade system components.

WGA further validates the system, preventing access to Windows Update for all but critical security updates. Several reports of false negatives have been reported, with WGA locking a perfectly valid system out of Windows Update. Conversely, it has been proved possible to pass WGA validation on a system not even running Windows.

A Rough Start

Initial sales of Windows XP were strong, outselling previous Windows releases in the first year of availability.

Despite this initial success of the system, the rise in internet connectivity increased the potential attack vector for viruses and malware. While XP did include a number of security enhancements, the first 2 years of XP’s life saw numerous exploits, largely relating to buffer overflows. Microsoft had opted not to switch on basic security features, such as a firewall, in the initial release, and services (such as Messenger were active and running on all PCs, despite the average user having little to no reason to have them turned on.

While the OS did introduce the concept of user account privilege levels to the consumer market for the first time (Windows 2000 already had this feature), new users were by default set up as administrators. Should an administrator account be compromised, an attacker would have free reign over the system.

XP soon gained a reputation for being vulnerable and insecure, as it became the target for malicious software.

Windows updates themselves provided clues to hackers as to how to attack the system. High profile malware, such as the ‘Blaster’ worm (2003) and the ‘Sasser’ worm (2004), exploited issues which already had patches available through Windows Update. While previous releases of Windows featured an automatic update system, the importance of installing updates was not well recognised; Microsoft themselves were hit by malware that exploited a bug they had already produced patches for.

Service Pack 2 (released August 2004) had a major focus on bugfixes and security fixes. Many changes were backported from XPs successor. On installing the service pack, the user was prompted to enable automatic updates.

Auto update
A strong, full screen prompt to enable automatic updates

A new Security Center was added, which prompted the user to switch on the firewall and install antivirus software.

Security centre
The new to XP Security Center included in SP2.

The firewall was enabled by default, and several network facing services were disabled. In addition, a new memory manager reduced the threat of buffer overflows, as well as taking advantage of the new NX Bit (AMD)/XD Bit (Intel) available in then new CPUs. This ensured memory marked by applications as read only could not be executed, even if malicious software managed to alter the data to prime an attack.

Updates saw improvements to the security of Windows XP, intoducing features which have become mainstays in the Windows OS.

Many, Many Versions

As well as the usual x86 based version (which was the version 99.9% of people would have used), Microsoft also released Windows XP for Intel’s (at the time) new Itanium architecture, and AMDs new x64 architecture. Both architectures were 64 bit designs, compared to 32 bit for x86.

The initial Itanium Version, known as ‘Windows XP 64-Bit Edition’, was based on the same source as the x86 version of Windows XP.

A second Itanium version (known as ‘Windows XP 64-Bit Edition, Version 2003’), and the x64 version (Windows XP Professional x64 Edition), were both separate from the main XP release. These were instead based on the Windows Server 2003 code, and shared service packs with this OS rather than XP.

Windows XP Media Center Edition, released in 2002, was designed for DVRs (though it could be installed on any PC). This was followed by 3 updated releases, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, and Update Rollup 2 for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. Media Center Edition utilised a new UI, designed for use with a remote. The large icons and streamlined feature set were tailored towards media support. The 2005 update was the last XP based media centre release.

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, based on XP Professional, is, as the name suggests, designed for tablet PCs. This version included support for a pen input, allowing the touch screen to be utilised as an input device. It was not available to purchase outside of an MSDN or Volume License subscription.

Embedded systems also had a few XP based releases of their own. The first of these, Windows XP for Embedded Systems, is actually just a standard release of XP Professional, but was only licensed for use on embedded systems.

Windows XP Embedded, released a few weeks after the main XP releases, was a customisable version of XP which allowed OEMs to build the system in the way they saw fit. Windows XP was componentised, and an OEM could choose which components they wished to include. This allowed the system to run on much more limited hardware than the full release, by focusing only on the components required for the hardware in use. This release saw 3 service packs, the last of which released in 2008.

Released in late 2008, Windows Embedded Standard 2009 succeeded Windows XP Embedded. This version was also based on XP, as Windows Vista had not yet been componentised. Embedded Standard 2009 was replaced by a Windows 7 based release in 2010.

For low powered PCs, Microsoft released Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs. Based on Windows XP Embedded, this release was designed primarily for thin clients, and hardware running older versions of Windows that are incompatible with the full XP release.

A further embedded release, Windows Embedded for Point of Service, released in 2005. The focus of this release was POS (Point of Sale) systems, such as ATMs, tills and fuel pumps. This edition could not be purchased separately, and was only available to OEMs to load onto the applicable hardware. The updated Windows Embedded POSReady 2009 released in January 2009, also based on XP.

The Successor Stumbles

While Windows XP was improving, its successor, codenamed ‘Longhorn’, was stuck in a development quagmire. Initially slated for release in 2003, this date was repeatedly pushed back, as additional features were planned for the system.

In fact, similar to the beginnings of XP, the successor actually began life codenamed ‘Blackcomb’. Feature creep and the desire to release a replacement more quickly lead to the switch to ‘Longhorn’, with ‘Blackcomb’ becoming the release after ‘Longhorn’.

Through the development cycle, more and more of the features initially slated for ‘Blackcomb’ ended up being added to ‘Longhorn’, causing develipment delays, and system instability (as seen in the prerelease builds available from 2002/3).

A development reset in 2004 further pushed back the release date, this time to 2006. Due to this delay, some of the planned features were instead backported to Windows XP, including updated versions of IE, Media Player, and several security enhancements previously mentioned.

Longhorn desktop
Longhorn build 4093, the last build before the development reset. The reset took place mere hours after this build was created.

Finally released in 2007, over 5 years after the initial release of XP, Windows Vista was released as XPs successor. Vista introduced several radical changes to the OS. This included a new display driver model named WDDM. Such a change required updated drivers to fully support, giving a sub-par experience at release on many systems. The new Windows Aero interface, designed to take advantage of WDDM, would not run without compatible drivers installed, and on many systems simply wouldn’t run at all due to incompatible hardware.

Vista also had much greater RAM requirements (512MB vs 64MB for XP, with 1GB recommended), making older Windows XP machines incompatible for upgrade.

Having been widely panned by critics and users alike, many stuck with XP.

There’s No Place Like XP

Even following the 2009 release of Vista’s successor, Windows 7, XP market share remained strong. There are multiple reasons for this:

  • The large gap between XP and Vista allowed XP to become more ingrained into businesses.
  • IE6, bundled with XP, did not follow accepted web standards. This meant applications designed for IE6 would not work correctly in other browsers, or even other versions of IE. IE6 was not available for Vista onwards.
  • For many, Windows XP did the job. For many, XP was the first OS they had used, and there was little reason for them to upgrade.
  • Embedded hardware is often not updated during its life, with the hardware itself replaced as a whole rather than the software.
  • The reputation Vista gained for being buggy and slow was a major turn off. Business in particular need to ensure systems are reliable – Vista appeared to be a poor choice.

Various market share estimates show that Windows XP was never overtaken in market share by Vista. At the time it was surpassed by Windows 7, it had spent 8 years as the most widely used PC OS in the world.

A Slow Death

Support for Windows XP was gradually phased out, starting with the ending of RTM support in 2006.

Release:Release Date:Mainstream Support End:Extended Support End:
Windows XP (RTM)October 25, 2001August 30, 2005
Windows XP SP1/SP1aSeptember 9, 2002/February 3, 2003October 10, 2006
Windows XP SP2August 25, 2004April 14, 2009July 13, 2010
Windows XP SP3May 6, 2008April 14, 2009April 8, 2014
Windows XP 64-Bit Edition (Itanium, both releases)October 25, 2001/March 28, 2003June 30, 2005
Windows XP EmbeddedJanuary 30, 2002January 11, 2011January 12, 2016
Windows Embedded StandardDecember 9, 2008January 14, 2014January 8, 2019
Windows Embedded for Point of ServiceMay 25, 2005April 12, 2011April 12, 2016
Windows Embedded POSReady 2009December 9, 2008April 8, 2014April 9, 2019

Versions not explicitly mentioned, such as Windows XP Media Center Edition, followed the same support dates as the core release, based on the service pack installed, albeit with differing release dates.

Following the ending of extended support for XP3 in 2014, Microsoft did offer further support contracts to customers still dependent on the system, for a fee. There have also been 3 updates released for XP since support officially ended, in 2014 (1 month after support end), 2017 and 2019. These critical security bugs had the potential to spread malware over the internet, and was therefore deemed worth of a patch despite being out of support.

Using Windows XP today is not advisable, due to potentially unpatched vulnerabilities discovered since support ended. Due to the lack of support for SSL in the bundled versions of IE, even browsing the web is a challenge, in particular, on a fresh install. Getting screenshots for this post took much longer than I anticipated.

As noted in a previous article, Microsoft has discontinued the automatic update website for Windows XP, meaning updates now have to be downloaded and installed manually. These updates can be found here. Note that while the site uses SSL (and is therefore troublesome to access in a fresh XP install), the download links themselves do not.

The Pinnacle of Windows?

WIndows XP propelled Windows sales to new heights, with over 1 billion sold over the course of its life. WIth over 12 years of support, XP had the longest support lifespan of any Windows OS to date. This includes Windows 10, scheduled to have a 10 year support cycle, ending in 2025. OS usage statistics suggest XP never saw it market share dip below that of its successor, and even today it is still used on around 0.6% of PCs worldwide.

Windows XP support may have ended, but on its 20 birthday, it’s fair to say, it will be a long time before it’s forgotten.

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