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Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 07:13 GMT 08:13 UK
Microsoft's XP reaches behind the desktop
Shanghai skyline and Windows XP barge
Massive marketing push for Windows XP
The high-profile events for the launch of Microsoft's Windows XP are something of a sideshow.

Windows XP is just the vanguard, or dorsal fin perhaps, of a much broader strategy that Microsoft is hoping, and some say gambling, will significantly change the way it does business.

Essentially, Microsoft wants to become the organisation that people always turn to when using anything electronic to organise their lives.

Whether you are checking your diary on your phone, viewing and responding to e-mail on the move, playing digital music, editing digital images or spending money online, Microsoft wants to be there providing either the technology or service to make it happen.

XP, to be launched on 25 October, is the consumer end of this strategy, and the technologies within it designed to make the grander idea a reality.

Virus attack

For a start, XP is supposed to be less prone to crashing than the previous 9X versions of Windows. XP is based on the core, or kernel, of Windows NT and gets rid of the loose ends (some of which date back to DOS) that clutter up Windows 95, 98 and ME.

This stability is key if people are going to trust the operating system, and use it for all their web-based dealings.

Stable does not necessarily mean more secure, however.

Some of the most virulent viruses of recent months, such as Code Red, have exploited weaknesses in programs that run on NT and other versions of Windows.

A personal firewall is included with XP, but it is not yet clear how effective it is.

Microsoft's seeming inability to produce secure programs could foil its grand strategy. Already the US Computer Incident Advisory Capability has warned about the security problems of XP.

Help at hand

Inside XP are a range of programs that help it assume that role of digital helper.

It contains an improved media player, software to help create CDs, a cookie manager, improved support for a variety of network technologies, digital camera support and movie-editing software.

Pirate copies of Windows XP
Pirate copies already circulating
"In reality all it is offering to users is a better and more integrated way to do what they do now," said Brian Gammage, principal analyst at research firm Gartner.

Making it easier to manipulate images or create CDs is important if the PC was to assume a more active role in homes, he said.

Before XP doing many of these things involved third-party software. Now Microsoft has muscled in. The only thing it leaves to others is software to create MP3s audio files.

Active anti-piracy effort

Also ushered in with XP is the need to activate the software. Anyone upgrading to XP will have to get in touch with Microsoft and receive an activation number that will let them use the software indefinitely.

To get the number users will have to share information about the configuration of their machine. If you change too many parts inside your PC, you may have to get in touch with Microsoft and reactivate XP.

There is no guarantee that consumers will like this.

"Europeans are very reticent about sharing that type of private information," said Mr Gammage.

"Microsoft will have to tread very carefully because it has not had the best of presses of looking after consumer interests over the last few years."

Microsoft is selling this as an anti-piracy measure, but there are other reasons for doing it too. It begins the process of making people think of their software as a service rather than something they just buy and use.

This is where the rest of the Microsoft strategy starts to become more obvious.

When XP is installed on an older computer or first run on a new one, it exhorts people to sign up for a Microsoft Passport account and for its MSN internet service.

Without a Passport account consumers will not be able to use many of the internet-based services that Microsoft is backing. Some will be launched with XP, others will come later.

Bitter rivals

Microsoft hopes that the Passport system will become ubiquitous and the preferred method people use to identify themselves to a wide range of connected devices including smartphones, set-top boxes, and perhaps consoles used to play online games.

Under its .Net banner Microsoft is also selling the technology that will sit behind the scenes and tie your online life into a seamless whole.

Ultimately Microsoft wants to become a company that makes its money from services and subscriptions rather than just relentless upgrades to its software. XP is just the start of this big change.

But there are no guarantees that it will work. On almost every front of its grand strategy Microsoft faces stiff competition. There are rival technologies for almost everything it wants to do.

There are competitors who resent its efforts to reach beyond desktop computers to embrace the net.

And governments in the US and Europe are keeping an eye on Microsoft, wary that it might again try to use its might to muscle out the competition.

As part of our coverage of the launch of Windows XP, later on Wednesday we will be looking at how important is XP to Microsoft's bottom line?

On Thursday, we'll be covering the launch of XP as well as looking at business reaction to the new operating system. We'll be asking for your views on XP and Microsoft's ambitious strategy.

And on Friday, we'll ask how compatible is XP with your computer?

See also:

05 Oct 01 | Business
Korean firms seek ban on Windows XP
24 Aug 01 | Business
Microsoft ships Windows XP
19 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
Microsoft 'experiments' with XP
06 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
New worm infects the net
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