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Windows XP in a Nutshell by Troy Mott, Tim O'Reilly, David A. Karp

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Chapter 1. The Lay of the Land

In many ways, Windows XP is a bit of an anachronism. On one hand, it is technically only an incremental upgrade to Windows 2000, released only a year earlier. On the other hand, it is the first consumer-level operating system based on a powerful and robust platform previously available only to advanced users and network administrators.

Windows XP is easily the most technically sophisticated operating system Microsoft has ever released, but it is adorned with an almost cartoonish interface. It has an advanced, scalable networking system built in, but networking is easier to set up in Windows XP than in any other release. It has the heftiest system requirements of any Windows to date, but given the same hardware, it ends up outperforming its predecessors in almost every way. It also has more superfluous bells and whistles than any other OS, but will likely be the OS of choice for most power users for several years to come.

There’s more to understanding Windows XP than simply knowing how to open applications and manage your files effectively. In this chapter, we’ll cover what’s new in this release and how Windows XP fits into the big picture. Move on to Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 for some of the more basic aspects of day-to-day use of the operating system, or skip ahead to the later chapters for more of the meatier content.

The Big Picture

The first few releases of Microsoft Windows in the early 1980s were little more than clunky graphical application launchers that ran on top of the Disk Operating System (DOS) (see Chapter 6 for details). Version 3.x, released in the late 1980’s, gained popularity due to its improved interface (awful by today’s standards, though) and ability to access all of a computer’s memory. Being based on DOS, however, it was not terribly stable, crashed frequently, and had very limited support for networking and no support for multiple user accounts.

Soon thereafter, Windows NT 3.0 (“NT” for New Technology) was released. Although it shared the same interface as Windows 3.0, it was based on a more robust and secure kernel , the underlying code upon which the interface and all of the applications run. Among other things, it didn’t rely on DOS and was capable of running32-bit applications (Windows 3.0 could only run more feeble 16-bit applications).[1] Unfortunately, it was a white elephant of sorts, enjoying limited commercial appeal due to its stiff hardware requirements and scant industry support.

In 1995, Microsoft released Windows 95. Although based on DOS like Windows 3.x (it was known internally as Windows 4.0), it was a 32-bit operating system with a new interface. It was the first step in migrating the enhanced capability of the Windows NT architecture to the more commercially accepted, albeit less capable, DOS-based Windows line. Soon thereafter, Windows NT 4.0 was released, which brought the new Windows 95-style interface to the NT line. Both of these grand gestures were engineered to further blur the line between these two different Microsoft platforms. Although both operating systems sported the same interface, Windows NT still never garnered the industry support and commercial success of Windows 95.

As time progressed, the lineage of Microsoft Windows became even less linear. Windows 2000, despite its name, was not the successor to Windows 98 and Windows 95; Windows Me, released at the same time, had that distinction. Instead, Windows 2000 was the next installment of the NT line; it was actually known internally as Windows NT 5.0. Windows 2000 was particularly notable for being the first version of Windows NT to support plug-and-play, which was yet another move to combine the two platforms.

Then came Windows XP, known internally as Windows NT 5.1.[2] Although it’s technically merely an incremental upgrade to Windows 2000, it has been positioned as the direct replacement to Windows Me, officially marking the end of the DOS-based Windows 9x/Me line. Windows XP is indeed the long-anticipated operating system designed to finally unify both lines of Windows, bringing the bullet-proof stability of NT to home and small business users, and the industry support of Windows 9x/Me to corporate and power users.

[1] A bit , or binary digit , is the smallest unit of information storage, capable of holding either a zero or a one. 32-bit operating systems like Windows NT and Windows 95 were capable of addressing memory in 32-bit (4 byte) chunks, which made them more efficient and powerful than a 16-bit OS like Windows 3.x.

[2] Type ver at any command prompt to see for yourself.

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