Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Golden ages of technology never to return. Part2: WindowsXP

I first became a fanboi of Windows for the games.  Doom and Quake changed the way I thought about computers.  They made me want to learn how to program them and, when I could first afford my own, to know why one computer was better than another.  This latter motivation coincided with the original dual celeron hack, which raised issues that are still at the forefront of computing (what's the difference between on-chip and off-chip cache?  Why do some processors overclock more than others?  How does higher voltage increase clock headroom?  Why was overclocking the bus important?  How does a graphics card offload CPU work?).

Back on topic, Windows 95 had crashing problems.  Windows 98 had less crashing problems but only supported single processors.  Windows NT crashed even less and allowed dual processors, but had software and driver incompatibilities.  WindowsXP was the first OS that supported multiple processors, crashed very little, and was compatible with all first-release computer games.  Another great feature is that Linux and WindowsXP could dual-boot with a little care, and at the time it was fun (for me at least) to learn what ruined a dual-boot installation and how it could be done properly.  Those were the first reasons I latched onto WindowsXP.

Then something expected happened :), Mac market share continued to dwindle, reaching an all-time low around 2002, coinciding with the time most kinks were ironed out in WindowsXP with service pack 1.  For example, market share at universities like Cornell (a traditional haven for mac fans) had fallen from 41% in 1994 to a sustained period of 5% from 2000 to 2002. This meant that every piece of software released in 2002 came out for WindowsXP (please post exceptions in the comments, as well as whether those companies are still in business).  Put another way, there was no software released in 2002 that you couldn't run on your WindowsXP computer.

This period also coincided with an all-time peak in Internet Explorer adoption rate and the release of Internet Explorer 6.  This meant that there were no browser incompatibilities for WindowsXP users in 2002 - everything worked with IE6 or died.  In addition, any hardware that came out got very cheap very fast as the hardware manufacturers all competed on basically a single platform (elongating the lull in Mac usage as the hardware benefited less from economies of scale).  Finally, all this software automatically got twice as fast (as it had for the previous ~20 years) as clock speeds and Instruction-Level-Parallelism continued to scale without the need for dual cores or multithreaded programming.

During its golden age, WindowsXP created the most compatible computers of all time.  This period was eventually followed by an increase in Mac usage (a healthy thing from many perspectives) which is now between 50% and 70% for incoming college students today.  In conjunction, there was an increase in browser diversity, and an operating system from Microsoft that intentionally irritated users (see that dominance inspires hubris, leading to bad products is a consistent theme for a golden age).  Software also stopped getting 2x faster automatically with Moore's Law, with subsequent improvements requiring downloads and reinstallation .

It is sad that this compatibility came at the expense of Apple etc., and some will see it as a dark ages of sorts, but in terms of compatibility (both applications and web surfing) it is hard to argue that computers were ever more compatible before, or will ever be more compatible than they were during the golden age of WindowsXP.

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