XP's Road To Simplicity

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When was the last time your PC crashed? Not to gloat, but it hasn't happened to me for weeks. That's because I installed a preview version of Microsoft's new operating system, Windows XP, almost two months ago. And Ol' Sparky rarely seizes up now. Before XP, my computer tended to crash about three times a day, which is probably par for most hard-core users of Windows 95, 98 and ME. Most PCs crash as frequently as bumper cars. If Windows XP did nothing more than increase stability, I'd gladly pony up my $99 for an upgrade when it arrives in retail stores Oct. 25. Bad news for my checking account: Windows XP does more than make PCs stable.

But good news for the PC industry, which is hoping to find a way to resuscitate comatose sales. Last week Microsoft shipped its final code for XP to manufacturers, which are installing it on new machines that should be in stores soon. Whether you buy a new machine, upgrade your old one or do nothing at all depends on your own level of Windows discomfort.

Windows XP is really the first easy-to-use, built-from-scratch operating system for PC users. It narrows the ain't-computing-fun gap with the Macintosh platform. That's because Microsoft took a cue or two from Apple.

XP simplifies computing. Start with the "desktop" that welcomes you when you boot your machine: it's bare except for a Recycle Bin to trash unwanted files. Your eyes are drawn to a fat Start button, as luminescent as a hard candy, that opens the Start Menu, the key to everything on your computer. The menu is arranged sensibly, with frequently used programs grouped on the left and file folders (organized by media type--text, pictures, etc.), settings, search and other utilities on the right. You can still drag favorite programs onto the desktop screen. But in a kind of Keep Your Desktop Beautiful campaign, XP notes how often you use them and offers a cleanup option that sweeps little-used programs into a folder.

More evidence that XP is smart: plug in a digital camera, and the operating system "knows" you probably want to store photos. The My Pictures folder is automatically called up. Retrieve a photo from it, and at the click of a button, make it e-mail ready; this is what we do with photos on computers, after all. Even error messages are simpler.

The biggest change in Windows will remind users once again of Microsoft's corporate muscle: you will be forced to log in to XP. At home, where I share my PC with my three daughters, we now all have our own "accounts" that arrange our desktops. Ella, who has a thing for cows, has a bovine motif, for instance; Zoe prefers a King Tut theme. When I'm allowed on the machine, I hit Windows-L and instantly hot-key into my own account (a desktop built on a Daniel Clowes comic). Whatever programs my daughters are running continue to run, invisible to me but waiting for their return. This is hugely useful and a big hit. But coupled with Microsoft's push into your private life--you also have to register online or by phone to activate XP, and messages on the task bar are forever bugging you to sign up for Passport, the company's controversial online wallet system--it's a little too creepy.

I dislike some other things too. The installation took an hour, and unlike previous upgrades, you actually have to sit there for most of it, answering questions. Also, you can install XP on only one machine. If you have other PCs, you will need to buy more copies. (Microsoft is coming up with a multiuser pack; pricing hasn't been announced yet.)

Sometimes, simplicity didn't work. I was running a home network that linked my wife's machine before installing XP. But after I tried to upgrade to XP's home network, my connection to the Net disappeared. I had to spend 90 minutes on the phone with Microsoft's pros untangling the thing--a courtesy that civilians won't get.

Finally, in the Microsoft Conspiracy Department, a number of programs did not work--from Microsoft's competitors. My AOL connection refused to recognize my cable modem and tried to connect via the phone, something Microsoft says AOL will "fix" in its forthcoming 7.0 release. Liquid Audio, a popular music player, had the dubious distinction of causing my machine to gag. And Java programs now require you to find, download and install a special piece of software. Oh, well. Life's not perfect under a monopoly. Better get used to it.