With much fanfare and hyperbole, Microsoft unveiled the future of Windows last week, but the sneak peak at Windows XP included as much old technology as it did new features.
Windows XP, formerly referred to as Whistler, focuses on consumer features such as multimedia, sports a new user interface that allows for easy-to-set multi-user configurations, leans heavily on "Web services", and aims to vastly simplify the PC experience. Microsoft, which has not yet set pricing for the operating system, hopes to ship it in the second half of 2001.
Despite a declaration from Platforms Group vice president Jim Allchin that Windows XP is "almost a lifestyle upgrade", many observers were not impressed, complaining that most of the demonstrations were of features now found in Windows and of Gates and Allchin repeatedly referring to new features they did not demonstrate.
Chris Le Tocq, an analyst at Gartner Group, said Microsoft's unveiling of Windows XP - before Beta 2 of the product has even shipped to testers - was timed to trump Apple Computer, which plans to ship its latest system, Mac OS X, next month. With the iMac and other recent moves, Apple has staked out a large claim in the multimedia-friendly territory Microsoft is eyeing with Windows XP, he said.
Like night and day
Holding up a digital video camera, Le Tocq said, "The difference in trying to do this on a PC and doing this on a Mac is like night and day."
At the press event held at the Experience Music Project, a museum funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Bill Gates and Allchin trumpeted Windows XP's potential for ease of use and reliability.
However, Gates and Allchin bristled at a suggestion from a reporter that the product should be renamed "Windows Inexperienced", because the main improvements demonstrated were aimed at home consumers. Gates protested that Microsoft did not have time to demonstrate "dozens" of other new features, and Allchin said Microsoft's goal was to make Windows accessible to everyone without "dumbing it down".
In the first public demonstration of Windows XP, Allchin ran through functions such as user account setup, music copied onto handheld devices, and how to view and navigate through DVD movies.
In the demonstration of one new feature, Remote Assistance, Allchin was able to take control of Gates' laptop through a peer-to-peer connection and help him start an application. "Windows XP is the system I've always wanted to build," gushed Allchin, who has supervised Windows development at Microsoft for years.
Microsoft's partners lined up in support of the product. Gates trumpeted endorsements from PC makers Compaq Hewlett-Packard, PC retailers Best Buy and Circuit City Stores and online auctioneer eBay.
Gates said the four main focuses of Windows XP, on which he estimated Microsoft has spent $US1 billion in development, were ease-of-use features such as "always on"; music, digital images, and other multimedia features; communications applications such as instant messaging, voice recognition, and sharing applications; and XML-based Web services.
"The philosophy in this vision really comes from listening to users," Gates claimed. Windows XP is positioned as Microsoft's first OS step into the .NET strategy that relies more on the Internet, via Web services, and less on the desktop-rooted OS.
"With no version numbers [in Microsoft's product naming scheme], you see them preparing for their software as a service' vision," Le Tocq said. "They need to persuade people to re-up every year for .NET services."
Windows XP will be optimised to run on Intel's forthcoming Pentium IV chip, but Allchin said the OS would not require "the most advanced hardware available".