Saturday, 25 April 2009 18:29

Back to the future: Windows 7 and its Windows XP Mode

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Microsoft still can't shake the success of Windows XP. In a move that seems designed both to ensure backwards compatibility and to sway the Vista nay-sayers it has been revealed Microsoft’s impending Windows 7 operating system will include a virtualised Windows XP mode.

Windows XP is undoubtedly a high point in Microsoft’s product line. While the change from Windows 3.1 to Windows ’95 was much more dramatic, there’s no denying XP successfully transitioned the user interface while maintaining a reputation for good hardware and application compatibility.

Contrast that with Windows Vista which has been well regarded by some, but loathed by many more.

Vista was a long time but even so still missed some of the key innovations it was expected to bring Consider WinFS, for instance; this was to be a new file system that replaced NTFS and FAT. WinFS was interesting because it was a relational database at heart. You’d still save and organise files and folders but you’d also be able to search on data in new, fast ways.

Vista introduced new device driver models which meant that many devices would not operate correctly until new drivers could be produced. Early on, the lack of an nVidia video card driver at the time of Windows Vista’s retail launch – for one example – really caused some pain. Looking back, the situation is much better now but Vista definitely started off life on the wrong foot.

Meantime, Windows XP – fast approaching its 10th birthday – is still plugging away, powering computers where the owners lack confidence in Vista to upgrade (or are so happy with XP they see no reason to upgrade.)

The legacy operating system is also powering netbooks, quickly becoming Microsoft’s weapon against Linux in the war for domination of low-powered lightweight computing devices.

Windows Vista was never a contender for the netbook market, with much beefier hardware requirements than its predecessor.

It stands to reason Microsoft has considered carefully how Vista was perceived, and similarly how Windows XP has gone from being just an operating system to a virtual equivalent of a security blanket. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. Really, Vista has caused users to tenaciously hold on to Windows XP when they would ordinarily be excited by the release of something new.

We already know Windows 7 is lighter on hardware needs than Windows Vista, thus allowing it to operate on netbooks.

It has now been revealed that another big thing about Windows 7 will be a virtualised Windows XP mode. I see this as solving two problems. First, it guarantees that if something works with XP then it will work with Windows 7. Second, and as a result of the first, this can sway the Vista-holdoffs that they should give Windows 7 a try.


This virtual Windows XP will be called Windows XP Mode, or XPM. It will genuinely be an instance of the Windows XP operating system but running within Windows 7.

Microsoft make this happen by using virtualisation technologies. Specifically, processor-based virtualisation support must be present on the underlying computer. So, do note there is a hardware requirement here – your CPU must offer native virtualisation support on its bare silicon.

While the lack of software based virtualisation means this feature won’t be accessible to the bulk of home users until they upgrade their hardware it does ensure that performance won’t be degraded by an additional software layer.

XPM will be part of Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate editions. It will not be part of the Starter or Basic editions (or any other edition below the Professional version.)

Every license of these Windows 7 releases will include a license for Windows XP with service pack 3. That product won’t ship in the retail box and won’t be included on the Windows 7 installation media. It can be downloaded from Microsoft’s web site, presumably in conjunction with Windows Genuine Advantage to validate that a legitimate, licensed and activated copy of Windows 7 is being used.

If you have experience with Microsoft’s Virtual PC, VMWare’s range of products, Sun’s VirtualBox or any other virtualisation software you’ll be familiar with the concept of running a computer within a computer.

Yet, XPM will be different. You don’t actually fire up a Windows XP computer in another window, and load programs from there. Instead your Windows XP apps will run in their own windows alongside your Windows 7 apps. It’ll be Windows XP under the hood running some windows, and Windows 7 running others.

XPM will maintain just the one set of shortcuts, whether on your Start menu or Desktop. So, whether you install an app under XPM or Windows 7 you will kick it off from the same set of locations.

Virtualisation is clearly an important part of Windows 7. Microsoft have already spoken at length about how Windows 7 will let you create virtual hard drives (.vhd files) through the operating system, and then boot from these. This will make running multiple operating systems much simpler. There won’t be any need to worry about disk partitioning; just create virtual hard drives and boot from these, loading on whatever OS you want. With this latest news, you don’t even need to do that to run Windows XP programs.

Windows 7 is shaping up to be an impressive release with a remarkable and even innovative feature set. I’m sure Microsoft will be pulling out all the guns to make certain Windows 7 turns the tide of perception back around. Now they can definitely lure the Windows XP stayers with a promise of complete compatibility.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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