For years, software makers invented operating systems and
applications that required more computing power, leading to
a demand for new chips and other hardware--a cycle that has
been likened to the automobile industry's infamous practice
of "planned obsolescence."
The release of Windows XP, however, may mark the formal end
to that cycle as consumers and businesses find increasingly
that the equipment they already own is good enough to run most
of the software they need. With the U.S. personal-computer market
largely saturated, Microsoft must depend on sales of Windows
XP to customers upgrading from older Windows versions, instead
of to those buying new PCs.
Businesses running Windows 2000 will find their existing systems
adequate to run XP. Consumers with a minimum 600MHz Pentium
III-based computer also should find their hardware adequate
for running Windows XP, though older systems could require extensive
upgrades or replacement.
"There isn't a motivation to go get the latest, greatest
thing as there was back with Windows 95," IDC analyst Roger
Kay said. "You have a lot of marginal systems--maybe they
bought them two and a half years ago--with 64MB of memory, and
it's not as clear a line they need to get new hardware. So they
This disruption of the historical software-hardware symbiosis
will have vast ramifications for the entire computing industry,
which has long been suspected of perpetuating artificial demand
for its products.
Whether a conspiracy theory or just smart business, the thinking
has gone something like this: Microsoft continually produced
operating systems that required new processing power. Leading
chipmaker Intel was careful not to release processors with excess
power that surpassed the pace of Windows development. The resulting
dual demand ensured more sales for PC makers, which in turn
paid substantial sums for Pentium chips and Windows licenses.
But realities of the marketplace have disturbed the delicate
balance of the Wintel duopoly's ecosystem, leaving the hardware,
software and processor ends of the business to fend for themselves.
Intel, for instance, has pulled away from the cycle's traditional
pace by making faster processors to compete with rival chipmaker
Advanced Micro Devices. Microsoft, meanwhile, has publicly insisted
that Windows XP will work with older chips and computers, mostly
as a concession to the slow sales of new PCs.
PC upgrade cycle
Six years ago, when Microsoft released Windows 95, buying a
new PC was practically a prerequisite for many consumers and
businesses to make the upgrade. The memory and processor demands
required to switch to Windows 95 from Windows 3.11 and DOS left
few customers any choice but to replace their computers.
Architectural changes made by chip giant Intel--such as the
move from 386 to 486 processors or, later, from the Pentium
to Pentium II--also fed a relentless cycle of upgrades in the
mid- to late 1990s.
"The covalence of events that drove people to a new hardware
and OS in 1995 was entirely unique," Kay said. "In
that instance, the operating system did make a difference, because
it was the difference between having a true graphical user interface
and not having a graphical user interface."
Around the time Intel introduced the Pentium MMX processor,
Microsoft integrated the Internet Explorer browser with Windows,
further increasing the need for processing muscle and memory.
The move to Windows 95 and later 98 also required that the majority
of software applications be rewritten for those new operating
Since then, however, the Windows graphical interface has remained
largely the same. After Intel released the Pentium III, the
chip's processing power pushed past the demands of software,
which has yet to catch up.
"Windows stopped being substantially more demanding back
in the Windows 98 time frame," said Peter Glaskowsky, an
analyst with MDR/Instat.
Of course, the question of whether new hardware is needed will
depend on such factors as the age of the existing PC and which
Windows XP features will be used--and requirements can vary
widely with functions like wireless networking, videoconferencing
and CD burning.
Will it run on older PCs?
Jim Allchin, Microsoft's group vice president in charge of Windows,
maintains that any PC bought from Christmas 1999 on will be
satisfactory to run XP. But industry analysts say Microsoft's
hardware advice is overly optimistic, especially if customers
want to use some of the more resource-intensive functions.
"The requirements of XP are such that people with older
PCs with older components aren't going to be able to run it,"
ARS analyst Toni Duboise said. "The products I am seeing
released with XP are fully loaded--we're talking about 256MB
and 60GB hard drives. It's incredible how ramped up these machines
One reason for need of such resources is Windows XP's heritage,
which derives from its business-oriented cousin, Windows 2000.
That operating system and its predecessor, Windows NT, required
much more memory than Windows 95, 98 or Me. The improved memory
management of Windows 2000 required more processing power, as
did additional security, networking and user-management features.
Many of those features will come with both versions of Windows
XP--Home for consumers and Professional for businesses. Microsoft
recommends 128MB of RAM minimum, but Duboise said twice that
amount may be more practical.
In addition, analysts question Microsoft's contention that
a 300MHz Pentium chip can be used to run Windows XP. "That's
not fast enough. Sure it will run, but that's about all,"
Glaskowsky said. Realistically, he added, "I would say
a 600MHz to 800MHz Pentium III is probably the minimum standard
for real people, particularly if people don't know what they're
going to be using the system for."
Still, that is far below the top processor speeds of many new
PCs on the market. People using 600MHz machines may be tempted
to try Windows XP on their existing equipment, rather than buy
expensive new PCs--if, that is, they think the new operating
system is worth buying at all.
Kay notes that consumers and businesses have held back on all
computer-related purchases in the slumping economy, especially
since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. IDC predicts that desktop
PC and notebook shipments will decline 18 percent in the United
States during the fourth quarter from last year's levels. The
consumer segment will see the steepest drop, a 31 percent plunge
from the fourth quarter of 2000.
"That's a downright disaster," Kay said. "XP
will warm the thin holiday fire, but otherwise it's going to
be lean overall."
George Fiala, a direct-marketing executive from Brooklyn, N.Y.,
is one of those who believes that people can limp along with
the hardware and software they are using now. "In these
times I am sure that many people will stick with what they have,"
he said. "I used a 486 machine with Windows Me for the
past two years, and while it was a pain to keep having to reboot,
it did everything I needed."
Doug Shekoyan, a raisin farmer from Fresno, Calif., is one
of many business owners who are interested in Windows XP but
are waiting before taking the leap. Because he bought new Windows
98 PCs in 1999 "to get ready for the big Y2K problem, it
will be another 12 to 18 months or so until I am ready to purchase
new machines," he said.
And there are those who oppose Windows XP for philosophical
reasons, objecting to the way Microsoft is using the operating
system to shut out competition.
Don Fitzpatrick, president of InterNetworx Systems, is one
such critic. The Brookfield, Wis.-based developer provides business-management
software to smaller companies.
"Microsoft's tactic of merging non-operating system functions
like a media player, a photo editor or a CD writer into XP may
help them drive a competitor out of a market they want to enter,"
Fitzpatrick said. "However, the logic for embedding them
in the operating system is questionable, and customers may be
better served by separately installing best-of-breed third-party
programs of their choice."