Sunday, April 19, 2009

Windows evolution, Part 1 - History class

Windows, Windows and ... Windows?
This post is dedicated to one person whom I talked with on YouTube for about a month. We were arguing about why Windows Vista might or might not be better than windows XP. I finally had to settle the discussion since the 500 character limit was making it go nowhere. My goal here is to expose an objective and detailed comparison between Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7. I feel the necessity to include both Vista and 7 since more than 50% may skip Windows Vista and go strait to Windows 7. See this post as a continuation to this conversation. If you want to bring new fact from the dark, fell free to use the comment feature to do so. I'm pretty sure that this post will start a big fight so I'd like to make it clear : "My friend here tried it and said it was crap" is not a fact. It's an observation and might be based on influenced perception and modified facts.

As an OS X, Windows, ex-OS 9 and ex-linux user, I'm one of the rare person who really are objective from an OS point of view. The fact that I tried and explored nearly every major OS that are and was in use during the last decade in a home user and business user way will serve as a basis on this review. With those knowledge, I'm able to show you who created what, why they did it and how it work under the hood. I will say it right now : Windows XP is definitely not the winner of this fight. That's why I hope to bring you proves of that.

Before saying anything more, I want you to keep two things in mind : 1. What I just said about facts and perceptions is based on the Mojave experiment and was verified and proven many times; Google for more information. 2. If you don't already remember them by heart, the release date of every Windows version since 3.1; Wikipedia for more information.

The old days
The first iteration of Windows prior to Windows 95, the OS was just a MS-DOS application with every limitation that it might have. It was a 16bit OS with very limited window management and capability. Then came Windows 95. The major difference was 32 bit support and the arrival the taskbar. Those two features make him a big boy and enabled new software possibilities. Windows 98 added Internet Explorer, some other features and bug fixes but was basically the same "kernel-wise". At the same time, Windows NT 4 appeared. It used the same GUI but a different, more stable kernel created specially for enterprise. NT 4 was designed to run as a client OS requiring a Windows NT 4 Server somewhere on the network.

The less old days
Many people then upgraded their computer to Windows 2000 thinking it was the new iteration of Windows 98 but in those days, Microsoft had a three years release date time frame. You have to look deeper to discover that Windows 2000 is Windows NT 5. That's why people found out it was god-like stable. It was an enterprise OS. There never was a Windows 2000 "Home Edition". You had the choice between Professional, Server, Advanced server and Datacenter server. The major new feature it had which made people think that it was a personal OS was that it supported to run without a domain controller server. Windows NT could now run in stand-alone.

Then, later in the year 2000, Windows ME went out. Microsoft tried to integrate part of the NT kernel in the Windows 98 code base and it didn't went well. Because of that, drivers had to be rewritten from scratch and hardware vendor generally botched them to release in time for the new OS. This caused a lot of headache and made the OS nearly unusable.

The still not quite current days
October 25, 2001... Windows XP hit the store. This iteration of windows is numbered Windows NT 5.1. Microsoft dropped the Windows 9x kernel and decide to make the NT one available to every one. They merged the end users feature from Windows ME with the enterprise features of 2000, updated the driver models, added a skin and that's about it. For more than 60% of the Windows XP user pool, there was nothing new in XP aside from a skin and... YES! A lots of headache too! Nearly 90% of the drivers needed to be rewritten, an other time, from scratch because of the new driver models. The first year was a big no-no for XP. A lots of people like me who had a pretty fast and stable Windows 2000 configuration where forced to keep it for an other 6 month. Installing XP on my computer took about 8 hours and in the end, I didn't even had all the driver I needed. Microsoft broke their 3 years time frame by releasing an early version Windows XP to recover from the Windows ME's disaster. End result : XP is not that much better!

During the first XP years, Microsoft finalized the product and released Windows XP SP1 one year and a half later... During this time, hardware vendors had the time to make new drivers that competed NT 4 quality and rumors that Microsoft would stop making operating system had the time to spread. SP1 was quickly adopted by all the unlucky enterprise who bought an original Windows XP version. The update made Windows XP work like it always have should and people was happy with it. Just the support for USB 2.0 (released 2 years before) was worth it.

Then, something went wrong. Microsoft decided to add a new feature to the Windows Vista build which required to rewrite the whole OS from the ground up. It's a well used feature that was, at the time, in every other OS : A Desktop Windows Manager (or DWM). OS X, that was first released on 24 of march 2001, 5 months before Windows XP, even had a DWM called Quartz. Linux had one since before Windows 98! Windows was way behind and some visual glitches that those kind of component solved years ago.

This feature was necessary to make Windows Vista a success so they put it in thus breaking the the 3 years time frame. This is the first reason why Windows Vista was badly accepted by the end users. Since a computer generally have a life span of 4 years, it was the first time people had to buy a new computer without new features excepted from performance gain. From this time, XP was now stated as the fastest OS in the world. On the other side, OS X 10.3 which had plenty of new features, just got out and was the last version before Apple dropped support for older and slower Macintosh G3 computers. Linux started to add memory/cpu intensive visual effects. And Windows was still the same... Same features with the same system requirement as in 2001 but ... hey! We are in 2004 now! Computers are about 16 times faster that they where! No doubt XP is running fast on this good old Pentium 4 HT or AMD Athlon XP barton.

Windows Vista build 3790 code-name Longhorn D1
Here we are. A brand new Windows with... brand new driver models! Indeed, to support the new DWM, the video driver model need to be updated. The old audio driver model doesn't even support more than a 44.1 kHz sampling rate at 16 bit which is CD quality (very bad for DVD or HD movie playback) so it need an update too. The new network stack need a compatible driver model to support network locations, new security features and protocols. The disk controller driver model doesn't even support the AHCI standard so that's an other one who need to be updated.

Bottom line, The final version of Windows Vista will be a new Windows ME. Or will it? To prevent this to happen, Microsoft planned a very big promotional event (the bigger ever at that time) and decided to roll out beta version publicly and even encouraged people to try it. That way, bugs that could occurred at release would be remove and requested features and modifications could be added. Indeed, it was the fist Windows where the end user actively participated its development. This was the second reason why Windows Vista failed at gaining market share. Hardware vendors, fearing of all the new features of those driver models, didn’t started to work before Windows was released. This caused the same problem that XP had before SP1 : Bad hardware support. It also cause an other unanticipated repercussion. Yes, people whom tried it was starving to have more. But the others who just tested the beta for a minute, without even knowing the meaning of the word beta, said it was slow and buggy. In one word : crap.

Windows Vista beta 2 build 5600
The beta rolled out for a while and a lot of new features where added to the OS. A great bunch of those features where directly aimed at the home user, copying the Apple’s iLife suite. It was the first Microsoft OS that enabled you to really do something with you computer without buying or installing additional softwares. This was, strangely enough, the fourth reason why Vista was badly accepted. There was an ENORMUS number of new stuff in it compared to any other Windows OS. Still, people expected it to be as small as XP or 2000.

I want to point that OS X is even bigger than Vista requiring at least 2 GB of ram (recommended 4 GB) and eating up to 16 GB of disk space where Vista need 10 GB. In comparison, XP used 800mb when installed from scratch and less than 3 GB with SP3. So if you decided to move to Macintosh because of that, you where mistaken. It’s not how much memory you have, it’s how you manage it and that’s where OS X is better than Windows. Simple applications can take up to 400mb of ram! Safari, for instance, was taking 344mb of ram when I wrote this post and still, everything is fluid.

Windows Vista SP1
Windows Vista, as Windows XP, had bad driver support until SP1. At that time, about 98% of the hardware had Windows Vista’s driver which is 20 % more than XP SP3 actually has. Hardware vendor started to use more and more of Vista’s new capability and began to develop Vista only stuff. Some times, they manage to make it work on XP using custom softwares and a lots of hacking everywhere but those aren’t needed on Vista. You just plug in the device and it work. A good example is Turbo-Memory imbedded in many laptop. Just like Hybrid-Drive, they can’t work on XP since they rely on a Vista technology called Ready-Boost.

Here we are
That’s the end of my history class. I hope you’ve learned something; Maybe like, lets try it with an open mind and then we’ll see. Next time, I’ll continue to go on in time and will talk about some future stuff (aka Windows 7 and OS X Snow Leopard) and will show you some numbers in the last part. Keep in mind that this is not a side by side comparison of OS X and Windows. I just talk about it because I want to show you stuff that you might not have think of before. After this series of post about Windows, I’ll get into the details of why OS X is generally a better operating system than Windows.

See you next week!

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