Monday, April 07, 2014

XP is an Orphan - What Next?

Windows XP was released to manufacturing on August 25, 2001. It replaced Windows 2000 (right) in the line of "new technology" products (that had started with Windows NT 3.5), and Windows ME in the line of consumer products stemming from Windows 95.

Windows XP was Microsoft's effort to bring the undoubted benefits of the NT operating system to the customers who were using a Windows shell sitting on a DOS base, very similar in many ways to the way in which Windows 3 had been a program running on DOS 6.

Finally, twelve years and seven months later, after three separate offerings of replacement operating systems, Microsoft is calling it a day and saying "enough!" for Windows XP.

But "why?", you may ask. "It works very well! Why change what isn't broken?".

Well, aside from Microsoft needing to earn money to pay its programming staff (sorry for the burst of cynicism there!), it has become apparent over these last twelve years that things could have been done better in Windows XP. Believe it or not, Vista (January 2007) really was a better OS, despite being vilified like few other products in history! Vista's problem was really that it needed more powerful machines than were running Windows XP machines at the time, so people had a bad experience and returned to XP.

Aside from that, here's the reply I recently made to someone who asked why they should move on from Windows XP:

All non-trivial systems have flaws. Mostly the systems operate fine and the flaws go unnoticed. An example is a steam engine with a pressure guage linked to a pressure-release valve. While you have a careful operator the pressure never rises too high, so a blocked valve is no issue. However, if a new, inexperienced operator is introduced then the pressure may rise, not be relieved by the valve, rise further, and lead to a violent release of pressure in unplanned ways (aka an explosion!). 

Likewise, operating systems all have flaws - some do a better job of hiding them than others. Windows has far more users than the other operating systems, so more opportunities for careless or malicious users. 

With Windows, Windows XP is simply one member of an ongoing family of products, starting with Windows NT 3.51 and currently offered in Windows 8.1. The large majority of the code in one version (Windows XP, for instance) is also present in the next (Windows Vista). This means that if a problem is found in Vista (or 7, or 8, or 8.1) then the chances are high that it was also present in Windows XP (and 2000, and probably NT 4, and possibly NT 3.51). 

With millions of Windows XP users still out there as targets, any problems that Microsoft fixes with Vista, 7, 8, etc. will immediately become pointers that malware writers will use to locate the same problems (if they exist) in Windows XP. If the part of, say Windows 7, with a problem is new since XP then an XP user is ok. If on the other hand, the code was there in Windows XP too then the malware writer has just been told (by Microsoft!) what the flaw is, where it is, and how to exploit it! 

That is the problem with staying with Windows XP. 

My suggestions: 
    If you want to stay with Windows then go to Windows 7 
    Else move to Linux Mint. 

If you really need to stay on Windows XP, try to move to Mint and run your XP in a virtual machine that doesn't access the internet. You can easily achieve this using Oracle's VirtualBox by turning off internet access in VirtualBox (so that XP has no way of turning it back on!) and by allowing the contained XP system access to a small part of one of the host system's disc drives. 

Now lets look at what's on offer as systems to move to.

Windows 7
Windows 7 was released in July 2009 and, aside from doing away with some features that geeks like me use but which the general user-base of Windows XP does not, is definitely an improvement over Vista and a huge improvement over Windows XP.

To the right you see an example of how you can hover over a task bar icon and see live thumbnails of the instances of the program that are running, so you can select between them.
Above is the Windows 7 taskbar, with the rather nice feature of being able to pin often-used tasks to it for easy re-use. It's always been possible to get into the menu system and reorganise it, but this feature alone takes away much of the need for messing with the menus.

Windows 7, for my money, is definitely a far better system than Vista and, if you're going to move from Windows XP but stay with Microsoft, is the place to go to. Extended support for Windows 7 is expected to end in 2020, so you should be ok for a while there!

Windows 8
Then there's Windows 8. Good for phones and tablets. Somewhat of a pain for desktops.

You could move to an Apple operating system, but you would have to jettison your computer and search out all new programs for everything you do.

Linux is a kind of a half-way house between staying with Windows, moving to 7 from XP and departing the Windows fold completely and buying a Mac and all new programs. Yes, it's a very different operating system, but it has lots of features that make it an easy move from Windows XP. You don't jettison your computer but you do look for new programs (well, a lot of them).

One thing you should realise when you start looking at Linux is that while it's very different under the hood, there's so much variety that it can be made to behave in a way that's comfortable for you. Rather like moving from a petrol-fueled car - you can go to diesel (Audi, Mercedes, VW, for example), or electric (Nissan, Tesla), or hybrid (Toyota, Ford, Nissan, ...) - so you can almost certainly find a car that'll suit you! Similarly to there being lots of car makers, there are lots of different Linux Distributions ("Distros"). Most can be personalised to a great extent.

Let's take a look at an average user; here are some problems that people think that they have:
  1. Hardware. If you're using an older XP system or a net-book (here or here) then Windows 7 or Windows 8 may simply be too demanding for your computer. There are several varieties of Linux, OTOH, that are specifically designed for smaller, older machines. For an example, look at Puppy Linux.
  2. My machine is quite old, but I really like the Windows XP interface. Try looking at Zorin (which is a Linux that can be made into a very XP-looking system indeed)
  3. My machine is new, but I really need Windows XP for some programs that aren't being upgraded. Here you could go to Windows 7 Professional, which has an XP Emulation package, or, if you have a nice powerful machine, like the one I'm writing this on, you can get a free program from Oracle called VirtualBox and run a copy of Windows XP, along with your programs, inside it. I'd really recommend that you try to get a replacement for your program, though, as replacing old software tends to get more expensive the longer you leave it!
  4. I really need iTunes. Well, that one really is a showstopper for Linux - there isn't a version of iTunes for Linux. Don't forget, though, that you can download directly to your device from iTunes online.
  5. I'm always on the web. There are lots of browsers for Linux - Firefox, Chrome, and Konqueror are just three that spring to mind. Personally I use Chrome on Windows, Linux, and ChromeBook systems and they're all constantly synched.
  6. How do I know if I'll like it? With Windows you look over someone else's shoulder. With Linux there aren't so many users, so you can get what's called a "Live Image" - either on a DVD from a magazine or by burning one downloaded from a Linux distro site. Then you can boot your PC from the CD or DVD and get a Linux instead of Windows. It'll be slow, because it'll be forever reading the disc, but you'll be able to see if it works on your machine and if you like it. 
  7. I have software that runs on Windows XP that I must have, but that doesn't run on Windows 7 or Apple or Linux!!  This seems like a real problem, but it can easily be surmounted, as I mentioned in the answer I gave elsewhere (in the box above) by moving from Windows XP but not moving from Windows XP! :
  • move your system to any of the three major options (Windows 7, Apple, or Linux), 
  • install a virtual machine on your new OS (VMWare, Parallels, or VirtualBOX, respectively, are all good choices), 
  • create a new Virtual Machine, 
  • install your Windows XP system into your Virtual Machine, 
  • disable the internet 
  • enable a shared drive between Windows XP and your host system, 
  • install your programs, 
  • go on with your life.
Next time: Creating a new Virtual Machine (for Windows XP, in Linux).

For those still cautious about the idea of moving from Windows, you can read about my first essays into living in the land of Linux here.
For programs in Mint to replace your Windows program, try looking here.
Ziff-Davis have prepared what amounts to a super-sized version of this blog post here.

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