The Microsoft Windows XP that makes its much-ballyhooed debut on Thursday is not quite the Whistler of yesterday.
Whistler was the code name for the version of Microsoft Windows that is being officially released now. Built on the more stable NT/2000 code base, Windows XP is the first to merge the consumer-oriented Windows 95/98/Me line with the business-focused Windows NT/2000 line. But along with that code name, Windows XP has shed a few features along the way. Some of the changes occurred quietly, almost mysteriously. Some are substantial improvements from the early versions. The effect of others is still up for debate.
Notably, Microsoft reconsidered its Product Activation copy-control technology, which met with hostility from prospective customers. Microsoft also quietly instituted a family discount policy, so consumers can get a small price break when they upgrade several home systems to the new OS.
In the past year, Whistler lost the so-called "smart tags" in Internet Explorer that link to the Web sites of Microsoft and its partners, no matter where you browse (even, say, on a competing site). Gone are Java and Bluetooth - two technologies that have been bypassed for different reasons. Also missing: the ability to rip MP3s from CDs.
PC vendors who partner with Microsoft got a bit of a break, too, as the company bent on a couple of points that were (not coincidentally) at issue in the ongoing antitrust case. For example, PC vendors get a bit more leeway in which desktop icons they can preinstall, which allowed Compaq to strike a deal with America Online to place AOL icons on Compaq PCs.
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All in all, Windows XP is a bit different from the OS that first peeked out from the alpha test curtain late last year. In fact, 2000 was a busy year for Windows. Microsoft shipped Windows 2000 in February of that year, and the first versions of Whistler surfaced publicly just months after the debut of Windows Millennium in September 2000. Microsoft was in the uneasy position of trying to prepare and even promote new products without harming sales of recent releases.
Certainly, the whole testing process is a time of yanking and adding functions, although by the time a product enters beta test it's theoretically something like a preschool child: Its personality is largely set.
So why were some features in the alpha and beta versions dropped? Did court action and ongoing appeals contribute to software design? Microsoft representatives were not available for comment, citing their focus on the launch occurring this week. But current events offer some answers.
Legal action definitely affected product specs, says Rob Enderle, research fellow with Giga Information Group. Microsoft is in mediation with a new appeals court judge in the ongoing federal antitrust case. But in July it loosened some requirements on hardware vendors who preload and sell Windows. Internet Explorer didn't have to be included as an icon or on the Windows Control Panel, although Microsoft still would include IE with every copy. Hardware vendors can place icons for their own services, including ISPs that compete with MSN, on the Windows XP desktop. But they can't remove Windows Media Player or Windows Messenger.
"The concessions weren't a big deal," Enderle says. "They diffused a few things. Microsoft pulled back on control of the desktop. But it got the product out, which was the goal." Indeed, complaints from vendors and some citizen advocacy groups urged the courts to delay Window XP's release. And Enderle says he expects the court may at some point order Microsoft to modify Windows XP's features.
Microsoft dumped Java - a programming language that's become popular for online games and other Web-based applications - because of the company's legal dispute with Sun, which developed the language. Although Microsoft licensed Java and used it in products, Sun complained that Microsoft modified the technology beyond the scope of the license - changing it from the open standard that Sun intended. After more than a year in court, Microsoft is dropping Java entirely.
As for Bluetooth (a protocol for short-distance wireless communications between devices), that too may pop up later. When dropping Bluetooth support from Windows XP, Microsoft cited an insufficient quantity of Bluetooth hardware. Vendors of the few peripherals that support Bluetooth can still write Bluetooth software drivers for Windows XP. However, Microsoft has said it will eventually support Bluetooth in its operating systems.
Smart Tags also may yet resurface, Enderle suspects. Smart Tags are implemented in Office XP, although differently than Microsoft planned with Windows XP. Smart Tags, which were to be implemented in the browser, are automatically generated links that connect to Web sites - most of them from Microsoft and its partners. The links would appear as "additional" links on any site, although sites could be designed to block Smart Tags.
"They're going to rethink it, and try it later," Enderle said. "From an academic standpoint it makes sense to have a set of words that always defaults to some reference, but the criticism comes when it's always pointing to a Microsoft source. It's back to the drawing board on that one."
As for multimedia, it's unlikely that Microsoft will make it particularly easy for customers to do as much with competing formats like MP3 as with its own WMA. You can add MP3 CD-burning functions through authorized Windows XP add-ins from Cyberlink, InterVideo, and Ravisent. Trial versions are available, but the utilities cost about £35.
"The MP3 plug-ins are pretty cool, especially the DVD support, but of course you have to buy it," Enderle says. "There's the extra aggravation of getting those additional plug-ins."
Another feature available for an additional fee is access to online storage, for which Microsoft partnered with Xdrive.
And Microsoft's Plus for Windows XP package of add-ons to the operating system also includes functions that perhaps simply didn't make the deadline for the full OS - or are just ways to get you shell out an extra £30.
On the other hand, some vendors still have reason to complain about Microsoft's kitchen-sinkware approach to operating systems. It's a sure bet RealNetworks isn't happy to see Media Player once again bundled with the OS, and XP's remote access function is reminiscent of Symantec's PCAnywhere.
"Companies that really concentrate on their customers still can outperform Microsoft," Enderle says. PCAnywhere is already facing challenges from high-end systems that are including remote control functions as well, he notes. "And RealNetworks is going to be nervous for a while."
For better or worse, Windows XP's features are frozen now, and its debut is imminent. Stay tuned for the first update.