Is Windows XP more about controversy than innovation?

Microsoft has released a new preview version of its forthcoming OS, but as the final release date approaches, Windows XP has become a lightning rod for the company's many detractors. Josh and John break down the issues.

One of our job perks is having access to operating systems and applications software before their public release. But lately it seems the procession of alphas, betas, and release candidates have less to do with innovation and more to do with spin control.

The distribution last week of Release Candidate 1 (RC1) of Windows XP is a case in point. (Release Candidate is jargon for one of the final test versions of a program before it is "released to manufacturing," and in the case of operating systems, to PC makers.) It was sent to the 100,000 or so people who signed up for the Windows XP Preview Program (US$9.95 to download; US$19.95 to get the CDs), assuming you were able to actually get your copy.

WITH ALL THIS widespread early access, you'd think Microsoft would be basking in free XP publicity. But somehow these preview releases have been derailed by a series of controversies over Smart Tags, product activation, technical glitches with the newly-integrated MSN Messenger service, and now, even problems with would-be testers getting the new version.

The biggest news with RC1 was not a feature that Microsoft was adding, but rather one that the company plans to take out: Smart Tags. Although Smart Tags are still in RC1--and have been available in Internet Explorer 6 and Office XP for some time--Microsoft says the shipping version of Windows XP and the bundled IE6 won't include this feature, which uses XML to automatically link words on a Web page or a document to related content elsewhere on the Web.

The applications of Smart Tags in preview versions seemed innocent enough. You could click on a mention of Intel to jump to a page showing its stock price, or quickly get last night's box score when you spotted the name of your favorite team. The Smart Tags were also extensible, so third parties could create tags for specific markets such as law or medicine.

BUT CONTENT PROVIDERS quickly realized that Smart Tags would effectively divert users away from their Web pages and toward related content on MSN Web properties or other sites that had deals with Microsoft. To its credit, Microsoft acknowledged the "significant amount of feedback" about Smart Tags, and pulled them until they could "better balance the user experience with the legitimate concerns of content providers." But in hindsight, it's hard to understand how a company with the resources and savvy of Microsoft could not have foreseen the problem in the first place.

RC1 is also the first release that actually requires the highly controversial product activation. If you've read our column before, you know we generally support the concept of activation, since in our view, Microsoft has every right to try to reduce software piracy.

Product activation will be required whenever you purchase Windows XP in retail, and in certain cases, when you receive it pre-installed on a new system (some OEMs will activate the software before shipping the system), but not on versions purchased through licensing programs for businesses. As a feature, product activation worked flawlessly on RC1. You can activate the product on up to 30 different hardware configurations with RC1, but the final version will be far more restrictive, and if you attempt to use it without activation, Windows XP will stop working after 14 days.

WE'D LIKE TO TELL YOU how MSN Messenger works in RC1, but as of this writing we still aren't able to access it. For nearly a week, MSN Messenger users have been complaining that they can't access the service or locate their buddy lists, a problem that apparently started when a disk controller on one of the service's database servers failed. Microsoft has a posted a bulletin on the problem on the MSN support page.

Of course, this problem will be resolved long before Windows XP actually ships. But it raises some interesting questions about the dangers of tying operating systems and applications so tightly to online services, which as we all can attest are prone to failures and network problems. Granted, it's not like everyone is going to suddenly stop using other IM services like AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo Messenger--both of which could also be subject to outages--overnight. But for the sake of argument, what would happen if the integrated IM client on more than 90 percent of the world's PCs went down for a week? The reaction would probably make the civil unrest during the WTO meetings in Seattle look tame.

YES

The proof will be in the final October 25 release, of course, but so far Windows XP seems to be faster and more reliable, more logically organized, and just plain better-looking--though opinions on the latter are admittedly somewhat mixed. In addition, RC1 has some new features that deserve quick mention, including an updated Windows Media Player, enhancements to IE6, and broader application and hardware support.

But whether it's due to the endless litigation, the maturation of the PC software industry, a perception that most software should be free, or just general fatigue with new releases and long feature-lists, somewhere along the way we lost the idea of the big, new release.

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