How Windows XP became the operating system that just won’t die

Remembering Windows XP (2001-2014)

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Computer screen showing Windows XP “Start” menu

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XP was born into the Windows family on Aug. 25, 2001. Its lineage dates back to 1983, when parent company Microsoft released its first version of Windows.

Windows became the dominant player in the OS market in 1990 with the launch of Windows 3.0, thanks to improved graphics and better use of system memory. Where previous versions of Windows had sold less than two million copies combined, Windows 3.0 sold four million units in its first year. The success continued through subsequent versions, including Windows 95 and 98, leading to the development of XP in the late ’90s.

XP’s job was to combine the best features of two separate lines of Windows products: the regular consumer version—known as Windows ME—and Windows 2000, a product aimed at businesses. Windows ME had failed to capitalize on the popularity of its predecessors; officially known as the “Millennium Edition,” it often was referred to by critics as the “Mistake Edition” for its lack of stability.

Code named “Whistler,” after the British Columbia town where many Microsoft employees took ski vacations, XP boasted several new features, including an upgraded visual appearance, a redesigned Start menu, and the introduction of Windows Media Player. Consumers, possibly still stinging from ME, took time to warm to XP. Once they did, it sold more than 400 million units within five years and one billion units by the time Microsoft announced it was discontinuing support for the product this April.

Windows Vista officially replaced XP in 2006. Though Vista sold 20 million copies in its first month (double the number of XP’s initial sales), it had a low overall adoption rate. Vista was more than what users wanted—or needed—in 2006. It was expensive, incredibly slow, and had demanding hardware requirements. What users wanted in an OS, they had already found in XP. As a result, demand for the older version continued, with reports of many users actually downgrading their systems from Vista. Due to XP’s continued popularity, Microsoft was forced to continue support in one form or another until this past April, more than 12 years after its release.

The end of official support created opportunities for independent developers. Security vendor Qhioo 360 released XP Shield in China, where XP still has a 70% share of the market. XP remains the second-most-used OS in the world; only its cousin Windows 7 is more popular. A large number of ATMs also run XP, creating opportunities for hackers.

Windows XP leaves behind a number of descendents, most recently Windows 8.1 and Windows Server 2012. Despite an uncanny resemblance to the Macintosh OS, the two product lines are not related.

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