Is Windows XP Really a New Operating System?
October 26, 2001
What features is Microsoft touting in its new baby? According to its own evaluation page, Windows XP lets you create movies, handle digital photos, play music, share one computer among many people, and "enjoy an all-in-one entertainment center" -- evidently a combination of the first four items.
In other words, what Microsoft is mostly pushing are new applications bundled with Windows XP: Windows Movie Maker, Windows Messenger and Windows Media Player.
The few truly cool, operating system-ish features, such as the ability to log off, then log back on later and have your applications still running, are buried in one of the bullet items on that page. Windows XP is based on the NT kernel used in Windows 2000, but the benefits of that fact, such as Windows File Protection and System Restore, are not given much prominence.
I've seen a few of XP's television ads, and -- similar to the evaluation page -- these also focus on the new bundled applications, not the core operating system features.
Back in the days when Windows 98 shipped with Internet Explorer included, it raised a huge ruckus because Microsoft's browser was considered an application. Including IE was seen by many as unnecessary from a technical perspective, included only to hurt Netscape Navigator in the browser wars.
Even so, there is no doubt that Internet Explorer was a major part of Windows 98, because it was the graphical shell of the operating system.
Now, you can argue that Internet Explorer was intentionally designed to be the shell so it would seem indispensable to Windows 98, and that in fact that architectural decision was not correct -- which may well be true. But whatever the motivation for it, you cannot deny that Windows 98, as finally shipped, would not run without Internet Explorer.
Microsoft's browser may have started out as an application, but by the end, it was part of the operating system. You could download Internet Explorer over the Internet, but you have to recognize that this wasn't an application you were downloading; it was an operating system upgrade.
Microsoft has been battling the Justice Department over this issue for years, and has continued to pursue its case because it does not want to lose its ability to add features to the operating system. I think we should distinguish between features and applications.
"What is an application?" is one of those "I know it when I see it" questions that is difficult to answer. Nobody wants a court making these decisions on a per-product basis. You can't define an application based on what it costs, or whether it is available separately, or even whether other companies sell a similar product. Any time you try to write down a definition, the words you use will start to be twisted around.
Windows Movie Maker may be really nice, but there's no way it's part of the operating system. It may be included on the operating system CD, it may take advantage of some multimedia support in the operating system, and it may be featured in the ad campaign for the operating system, but it's an application.
It looks like an application, it smells like an application, it quacks like an application. It's just a pure bundled application. You take it off, the rest of the system runs fine. You can't propose any reasonable architecture for the operating system that involves Windows Movie Maker as a key component.
The same goes for Windows Messenger and Windows Media Player. They are not there because they are needed by the operating system. They are there to offer other functions to the user and to battle AOL and RealNetworks on their turf.
All of this is fine and dandy if you support Microsoft's unfettered right to include anything with its operating system. After all, these things are "free," and users can install competitors' products, but it used to be that a new operating system was all about USB or Plug and Play or Active Directory or hard drive support (new in DOS 2.0), not a new version of Windows Media Player.
But you've got operating systems, and you've got applications. However you define them, there's a gray area of overlap in the middle, which Internet Explorer falls into.
The bulk of Windows XP is over here, in the operating systems area. And most of the touted new "features" in Windows XP are squarely over here, on the applications side.
Adam Barr worked at Microsoft for over ten years before leaving in April 2000. His book about his time there, "Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters," was published in December 2000. He lives in Redmond, Washington. Adam can be reached at: mailto:author's%20e-mail.