Improvements and new features
Windows XP was one of the most significant Windows releases to date. While Windows 2000 was the first desktop-oriented Windows NT version which could easily be used by regular consumers, it was Windows XP that brought NT to the masses - finally signalling the end of the Windows 9x series, which had really run its course and was in dire need of replacement.
While the shift to Windows NT as the base for client Windows accounted for most of Windows XP's improvements, the user interface was also massively overhauled. Luna introduced the blue colour scheme - to much ridicule, and rightly so, in my opinion. While this is of course a very subjective statement, I think Luna is one of the ugliest themes ever to come as a default on any operating system - heck, even CDE is more pleasing to my eyes. Luckily, you could turn Luna off, and switch to Windows classic - the first thing I did on any Windows XP install, whether my own or someone else's.
Other than mere looks, Windows XP also introduced several useful user interface improvements. The new start menu was kind of a mixed bag - I know people who swore by it, and people who hated it with a passion (I was in the latter group). I was most likely just averse to change, because after Microsoft tweaking it for a few years, I finally embraced this start menu type in Windows 7. Other interesting features introduced in XP are task bar grouping (now the cornerstone of the Windows 7 taskbar), a redone Windows Explorer, ClearType font rendering, and much more.
Other than the switch to Windows NT, other low-level changes were also made which we still benefit from today. A crucial improvement in Windows XP you don't hear a lot about is Side-by-side assembly, or, as it is more commonly known, WinSxS. WinSxS fixed one of the most infuriating problems of the Windows 9x product line: DLL Hell. DLL Hell is an umbrella term for a number of different problems, including missing DLLs, version conflicts, duplicate DLLs, and so on.
WinSxS addressed all these problems by storing multiple versions of the same DLL in the winsxs directory (in the Windows directory). Executables include an XML manifest (it can also be a separate file) which lists the specific versions of the DLL files it needs - Windows then loads these specific versions.
Of course, Windows XP contained a lot more improvements and new features, but these are the ones that always stood out to me. What are some of your favourite new features and/or improvements in Windows XP?
Windows XP was not without controversy. When it first launched, its minimum specifications were deemed too hefty in comparison to Windows 9x, and Windows XP's performance wasn't always up to par in its early days. Luckily, Microsoft finally bucked the increasing hardware requirements trend with Windows 7 and windows 8.
Other points of criticism include the activation technologies built into Windows XP, which certainly caused frustrations for users of both pirated and legal versions of Windows XP alike. Furthermore, people who relied on certain DOS programs (I'm looking at my former job here, which used till software which didn't run on Windows XP) faced problems migrating to XP.
The biggest criticism of Windows XP, of course, is its abysmal security track record. Especially before the second service pack, Windows XP was incredibly insecure, with all sorts of ports open and no built-in firewall. To me, the biggest crime Windows XP committed was squandering its Windows NT heritage, making braindead mistakes like giving the first user administrative privileges. Windows NT was (and still is) one of the most advanced operating systems in the world, and Windows XP could have been very, very secure had Microsoft forced its design principles upon users.
All in all, I have never been a fan of Windows XP. When it came out, I was getting my feet wet in BeOS for the first time, and Windows XP always felt... Well, crappy alongside my beloved BeOS. Especially the lag and lack of responsiveness in Windows XP's user interface - oh, the tearing! - frustrated me to no end, and as such, I simply never became friends with it. Even when I had long left BeOS behind, I never managed to feel comfortable using XP (and hence why I switched to Mac OS X in 2004).
Still, Windows 7 only recently managed to overtake Windows XP, meaning that despite its age and flaws, the operating system is still very popular among the world's computer users (only 12% of OSNews readers are still using Windows XP). Why anyone would opt for Windows XP when Windows 7, Mac OS X and the various Linux distributions are also available is utterly beyond me - but alas.
So, from someone who never liked Windows XP, a reluctant birthday wish, and the hope that more and more people finally make the jump to something modern. Windows XP needs to be taken 'round the shed.