Microsoft on a mission

The cool features of the new Windows XP system come at a price: your freedom online.

So this is the day that Bill Gates, along with many Microsoft fans (and stockholders), has been eagerly awaiting. Today, Oct. 25, Microsoft officially offers copies of its new operating sytem, Windows XP, Home and Professional Editions, at stores around the US.

Mr. Gates and company are hoping that the very news that Microsoft is offering a new operating system will make millions of people rush out to buy a copy - or better yet, buy a whole new XP-ready computer. The events of Sept. 11 may dampen those expectations a bit, but it's no lie to say that many in the technology business hope that the launch of XP will bring new life to an industry that has been trapped in the doldrums for almost a year now.

Those people aren't going to be very happy with this review of XP.

More than anything else, XP reminds me of a tourist trap. You arrive in a foreign city, and a handsome stranger walks up to you and says he will show you around the city. He offers to take you to the very best shops and restau-

rants. But you soon realize that he is taking you only to places that are owned by his relatives or by someone who gives him a kickback.

You know how mad you get when you realize you're being taken for a ride? That's the feeling I got using XP. It's impossible to separate the improved features in XP from the fact that Microsoft is trying to use its operating system to completely take over the desktop (the 'most valuable piece of real estate in the 21st century,' as writer Stephen Johnson has described it).

Microsoft wants to make it as difficult as possible for you to exercise your own choice in what programs you want to use and where you get to go when you're online.

For all of the good things about XP - its increased stability, ease of use and cool new features and look - we're recommending that computer owners wait a while before making the leap into XP.

In fact, this might be a good time to explore some of the alternatives to Windows, like Linux. You'll find our reasoning for this recommendation below.

But first, let's take a look at the best things that Windows XP has to offer.

The No. 1 improvement is the stability of XP as an operating system. Microsoft software has never quite worked the way it should. But XP, which replaces all previous Windows versions, and comes in two versions (Home or Professional), finally seems to get it right.

You need to do a lot of crazy stuff before the system goes down or gives you that annoying blue screen to tell you of a "fatal error."

Programs will still crash, but under XP, they won't bring down the entire system. And instead of the "fatal error" screen, the new message window actually offers you an apology. This is a very important improvement - for instance, I have two or three programs that regularly give me trouble on Windows98. The system's stability means less work lost because of computer crashes. Another nice feature is how fast the system boots up (starts). XP allows you to go from a cold start to having programs to work with much faster than Windows98 - no more long waits as little lines roll across the program's launch window.

Although I didn't get a chance to check this claim out completely, Microsoft says that XP is compatible with 90 percent of the 1,200 most popular software programs available. And if a program doesn't run under XP, you can use the Compatibility Mode to fix many of these problems. Gamers will love XP - the speed at which video games operate is noticeably improved.

Here's another cool feature - Fast User Switching. Five people in my house use the computer - each with different bookmarks and documents. XP makes it easier to share one machine among a lot of people.

And Fast User switching allows you to switch between users without having to reboot the machine. It's much like the AOL feature that allows you to switch between usernames without actually having to close and then reopen AOL.

Now for the dark side.

Almost everything about XP - from the new Start Menu, to the new version of Windows Messenger, to the fact that the new Windows Media Player will allow you to create only a Microsoft-format audio file called WMA, rather than the popular MP3 file - replicates the monopolistic practices Microsoft has been found guilty of. It screams that Microsoft has learned little from its recent convictions on eight counts of violating antitrust law.

The tactics that Microsoft used to knock Netscape's Communicator out of its No. 1 position when it wanted to rule the browser world, it now appears to be repeating in its battles with AOL Instant Messenger, RealNetworks' RealJukebox, and Apple's QuickTime.

In fact, you'll need to download updates to make all of these popular programs work on XP, something that most people will not do - a fact that Microsoft is, no doubt, counting on. And listening to Microsoft reps deny any sort of pernicious intent is like listening to tobacco company executives deny that tobacco has any ill effects.

There are technical issues as well. XP is a glutton for hard drive space and memory. The program takes up 1.5 gigabytes of hard drive space. The recommended minimum memory allotment is 64 megabits of RAM. But this is very misleading - like those big bags of potato chips where the recommended serving size is 15 chips. One friend told me he was able to get good results with about 85 megs, but he had turned off many of the features. For the full-blown XP, you'll need at least 128 megs. Walt Mossberg, in his review in the Wall Street Journal, recommends 192 megs.

Worse, XP is really not compatible with any machine built before 2000. To use XP on an older machine, you'd probably have to upgrade most of its major components - sound cards, video cards, etc. Now I don't know about you, but I count on using my machines for at least three or four years. And while computers are cheaper than they've been in years, buying a new machine just to take advantage of XP is silly for most people.

Then there is the activation requirement. With XP, you have 60 days to "activate" the software over the phone or the Internet. Once that copy is activated, you can't put it on any other machine in your home or office. But if you change your hardware configuration too much - by adding a new hard drive, for instance - XP may fail to recognize it as the same machine and shut down. Microsoft is exploring the idea of a "home license" for consumers with multiple machines, but so far this is just talk.

Taken in combination, these ethical and technical issues lead me to recommend not upgrading to XP right now. First, there is a very good chance that the appeals court will force Microsoft to make sweeping changes to future versions of XP that will loosen its tyrannical grip on its customers while actually improving the product. Second, don't go buy a new computer until you actually need one. While it's a definite improvement over past Windows systems, XP isn't so groundbreaking that you won't be able to get along without it.

And then again, it just might be time for you to check out some alternatives. Linux operating systems continue to improve, and there are more programs for consumers, not just businesses. For instance, Sun Microsystems has just released a new, much better version of its free StarOffice software that offers a Linux version - it's a real alternative to Microsoft Office.

And don't forget there's always Apple and its Macintosh line of computers.

So be patient and look around. You still might end up with Windows XP. But let's hope it's an XP significantly different from the one that goes on sale today.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.