Read an Excerpt
Windows XP Home Networking
By Paul Thurrott
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-7816-2
Chapter OneWindows XP and Home Networking
IN THIS CHAPTER
* Understanding the history of Windows XP and why it is better than previous versions of Windows
* Learning the features common to all Windows XP Editions
* Examining the difference between Windows XP Home, Professional, Media Center, and Tablet PC Edition
* Learning about the new features in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2)
* Discovering how to keep your system up-to-date with the latest security patches
We're taking part in a revolution. If you look around you, you might not see it. You may not even realize that it's happening. But it is. And if you're reading this book, you're part of it.
The revolution began with the release of Windows XP, a shot across the bow of desktop computing complacency. Thanks to this stable, reliable, powerful, and secure computing platform, the world is more connected. More important, our very lifestyles are being dramatically altered by the technologies that XP enables.
It's not far-fetched. Simply by releasing a new Windows version, Microsoft can affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people. But XP isn't just any Windows release. It's built with a rock-solid technological foundation and designed to interact with a new generation of connected services and devices. It's a Windows version with legs: Since its initial release in October 2001, XP has spawnedseveral major derivatives, including versions specifically designed for pen-driven Tablet PCs, multimedia-oriented Media Center PCs, and the 64-bit computer platforms that are the wave of the future. Microsoft has also bolstered XP with numerous free and inexpensive upgrades, including Plus! packs, PowerToys, and other add-ons.
Previous Windows releases offered various improvements, but XP is the first to combine the technologies Microsoft first developed for businesses with those aimed at consumers. It could have been disastrous, a Frankenstein monsterlike mishmash of incompatibilities and problems. But fortunately, that's not what happened.
This chapter takes a quick look at XP, the most recent Service Pack 2 (SP2) update, and then examines the home networking technologies that make this Windows version something special.
Introducing Windows XP Service Pack 2 with Advanced Security Technologies
Technologically, Windows XP is the successor to Windows 2000 and the latest version of what was once called the Windows NT product family. Internally, XP is actually NT version 5.1. Windows 2000 was NT 5.0, so you might think of XP as a minor upgrade. And architecturally speaking, XP is indeed a minor upgrade when compared to Windows 2000: It has the same basic core, with a friendly new interface and a number of additional features.
For home users, however, XP is much, much more than a minor upgrade. Previously, home users were stuck with a series of products-Windows 9x/Millennium Edition (Me)-that were based on Microsoft DOS (MS-DOS), the company's first operating system (released in 1983). DOS and non-NT Windows versions such as Windows 95 and its successors suffered from a number of technological deficiencies. For people using these systems, the results were bizarre, with application and operating system crashes, and constant rebooting. XP does away with all that.
A Little History
Microsoft's decision to continue the DOS code base for so long wasn't an effort to hurt customers. Instead, the company realized that application and hardware compatibility were key customer demands, and these needs made it hard for Microsoft to make a big leap beyond DOS.
However, an enterprise operating system project that began in the late 1980s held some promise. After hiring David Cutler, the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) engineer who spearheaded the development of Digital's VMS operating system, Microsoft began a new operating system project called NT ("new technology") that would compete with the leading enterprise operating systems of the day. NT specifically overcame the limitations of the DOS platform and scaled beyond the limited Intel-compatible hardware platforms on which DOS and Windows relied.
Sadly, it bombed. Big time.
Early versions of NT-soon renamed Windows NT and modified to incorporate a user interface virtually identical to that of the DOS-based versions of Windows 3.x-didn't exactly take the world by storm. But these NT versions featured integrated networking capabilities, security features, and cross-platform compatibility (they could run on non-Intel chips) that far outstripped mainstream Windows.
Early NT versions were also performance dogs that required far more processing and memory power than Windows. So Microsoft went back to the drawing board and fine-tuned the product. Subsequent releases featured better performance and, in 1996, added the famous Windows 95 user interface that had captivated the computer-using public. By the release of this NT version-Windows NT 4.0-Microsoft finally had an unqualified hit on its hands. And the company began talking about an eventual convergence, whereby it's two product lines-NT and Windows-would be combined into one. It was only a matter of time.
SPEED BUMP ON THE ROAD TO UNITY
Microsoft quickly discovered that combining two incompatible products is no easy task, however. The efforts began with the release of Windows 95, which incorporated the underlying NT's 32-bit programming interfaces (Win32) into its 16-bit core and added unique new capabilities of its own. Accordingly, Windows 95 and subsequent Windows 9x products were hybrids of 16-bit DOS and 32-bit Windows technologies, and this was the reason for both their problems and successes: Thanks to their continued use of the 16-bit DOS core, Windows 9x operating systems were still backwardly compatible with previous hardware and software, but that same code also meant the inefficiencies and bugs from the suddenly ancient DOS code base perpetuated for two decades.
Interestingly, both Windows and NT had various unique benefits and deficiencies, and throughout the latter half of the 1990s, Microsoft ironed out these differences. Windows 2000 (really NT 5.0) incorporated several of the important ease-of-use features that users expected from Windows, including true plug-and-play hardware support, advanced power management for both desktop systems and portables, DirectX gaming capabilities, and the like. Meanwhile, the Windows 9x line was heading toward extinction: The last version of that product line, Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me), attempted to increase reliability by removing some core 16-bit DOS features; Windows Me also included new home networking and digital media functionality. The stage was set for a new, combined Windows version based on NT, not DOS.
WELCOME TO WHISTLER
The new combined Windows version, like NT itself, got off to a rocky start. Originally, two groups at Microsoft were working on what would eventually be called Windows XP. The first was comprised largely of the people who had engineered Windows Me. They were working on a product code-named Neptune, which would appeal to consumers. A second group, made up of former Windows 2000 team members, was working on a business-oriented successor to Windows 2000 Professional, codenamed Odyssey.
Just before the end of 1999, word came down from Microsoft's senior executive staff that the teams would be combined, as would the projects, which were consolidated into a new project called Whistler, named after a favorite ski resort in British Columbia, near Microsoft's campus. The new Whistler team would deliver a family of operating systems based on the NT/2000 kernel that would replace both Windows 9x/Me and NT/2000. Both consumer and business versions would be available.
The consolidation was more than an internal political ploy. By creating a single product family, Microsoft could ensure that consumers receive the exact same underlying technology as business customers. The business version could be a true superset of the home version, offering enterprise- and mobile-oriented improvements that wouldn't make sense in a home environment.
Throughout 2000 and early 2001, this product was fine-tuned and heavily tested both inside and outside of Microsoft. There were obvious surface improvements-such as a colorful new user interface-and subtle (but arguably more important) architectural changes, including new self-healing and recoverability features, deep-rooted integration with digital media tasks such as photos, music, and movies, and thousands of application compatibility program fixes largely aimed at answering major user complaints about DOS/Windows 9x/Me application and game compatibility.
It would have been understandable if Microsoft had overpromised and underdelivered with Whistler, given the heady number of improvements the company planned for this release. But Microsoft did something fairly rare in its 25-year history: It hit a home run. In a rare bit of role reversal for the company, Microsoft's claims about Windows XP were largely accurate. It was, indeed, easier to use, more secure, and more functional than previous versions of Windows. Alas, no technology is perfect. And though Windows XP has been an unqualified success, it quickly came under attack by hackers eager to exploit the most frequently used operating system.
THE ROAD TO LONGHORN
In the years since Windows XP was first released, two trends have emerged. First, Microsoft has done an exemplary job of updating the system with a bewildering array of free and low-cost functional updates, many of which are digital media-related. The company has also built on the solid XP base by creating new Windows versions that go beyond the original Home and Professional Editions; we'll examine each of these versions in more detail at the end of the chapter.
Second, because Windows XP is now in use on over 250 million desktops worldwide, the operating system is a huge target for hackers, eager to exploit holes in the world's most widely used operating system. Microsoft had originally planned to build crucial new security technologies into its next generation operating system, codenamed Longhorn. But because Longhorn has been delayed repeatedly, in late 2003, the company decided to add many of those features into XP instead, through a product update called Service Pack 2 (SP2) with Advanced Security Technologies (or simply Service Pack 2, or SP2). In the following sections, we'll examine the features available in Windows XP, SP2, and the new Windows versions that have emerged to bridge the gap between the current platform and the future that is Longhorn.
The Case for Windows XP
This book deals almost exclusively with the home networking and connectivity features in Windows XP, but there are more reasons why consumers would want to upgrade to this product.
Windows XP is the most secure product Microsoft has ever built. That's because Windows XP is built on the NT code base and features many security improvements over previous NT versions like Windows 2000. On the flip side, Windows XP is also the most frequently attacked product Microsoft has ever built. For this reason, the SP2 update is a required upgrade for all XP users, and you'll want to keep your system up-to-date with the latest security patches. We'll examine SP2 and Microsoft's software update tools in more detail as follows.
Windows 9x users understand the pain of constant reboots, planned or not. When an application crashes in such an operating system, it can often bring down the entire system, sometimes resulting in the infamous "blue screen of death." XP is far more resilient than previous Windows versions, and it includes features that protect users, even from themselves: Install an errant device driver, for example, and XP lets you uninstall it (or "roll it back" in Microsoft parlance)-as shown in Figure 1-1. If you do something that causes system instability, you can restore Windows XP to a previous point in time. XP is the most reliable operating system you can buy for the home.
Despite being based on NT/2000, XP actually works with most Windows 9x hardware and software, so you get the best of both worlds. If you find a recalcitrant application, you can usually fool the app into thinking it's running on Windows 95 or 98 using the Program Compatibility Wizard. And Microsoft releases compatibility updates on a regular basis through the Windows Update Web site, improving the compatibility picture continually. This means that many legacy applications- including even some DOS games-will actually run in Windows XP. In Figure 1-2, a Windows 3.1 entertainment package is being installed on XP.
GAMES AND DIGITAL MEDIA
Are you a game player or digital media enthusiast? If so, Windows XP is the place to be. In addition to being compatible with the most popular games and multimedia software titles on the planet, XP is also the most stable and reliable system on which you can play these games and manage digital media content. So you can stay up all night, competing with players from around the globe in your favorite online game, and never worry about the system going down. And XP's digital media features make working with digital music, photos, and even movies, a snap, giving consumers an obvious and simple way to work with these exciting features, as shown in Figure 1-3. I'm so excited about XP digital media that I wrote a book about it-PC Magazine Windows XP Digital Media Solutions (Wiley). You can find out more about this at the book's Web site: xpdigitalmedia.com.
XP is a multi-threaded, preemptively multitasking, protected-memory, multiuser operating system that supports the latest computing technologies. OK, that sounds geeky and technical, but what it really means is that XP is a viable platform for the future. Because XP is a fully 32-bit operating system, it takes full advantage of modern microprocessors such as the Intel Pentium 4 and the AMD Athlon XP. And a new 64-bit XP version, creatively titled Windows XP for 64-bit Extended Systems, runs on AMD and Intel 64-bit platforms, which will be the computing platform of choice by late 2005. In Figure 1-4, you can see the Task Manager, which presents a technical view of the various processes in the system. Unlike Windows 9x, a crashed application cannot bring down the system. Also unlike Windows 9x, when you tell Task Manager to kill an errant application, it actually shuts down that application. Ah, progress.
XP includes cool end-user features such as a colorful new user interface (shown in Figure 1-5) that takes advantage of the latest video hardware, a Windows Media Player that features a skinnable interface and vibrant visualizations, and other fun features that may just make you smile the first time you run into them. You can configure your user account with your own photo, for example, and view slide shows of your photos. You can make your own movies and burn audio CDs for use in your car or home stereo. The list goes on and on, but the result is that XP is less about technology than it is about making a statement: Computers can be-and should be-fun.
Windows XP is the platform of the future, and as such it will be upgraded over time. Even when XP first shipped in October 2001, for example, Microsoft also released a slew of free, Internet-based updates, giving users new versions of Windows Movie Maker and Windows Messenger, new compatibility updates, new device drivers, and other updates. And since that time, the company has shipped an amazing collection of free add-ons and updates, and even new XP versions designed for specific tasks. Unlike other operating systems, XP isn't stuck in sand the moment it ships on CD, and Microsoft isn't forcing you to pay $129 a year for new OS upgrades. Instead, XP is a dynamic, constantly evolving product. Some updates are automatic, while others can be downloaded from Windows Update, as shown in Figure 1-6, or from Microsoft's Web site.
XP isn't stuck on an island on its own, unaware of the outside world. Instead, it is the center, or hub, if you will, of your connected world. With XP, you can easily get online, connect with other PCs in a home network (see Figure 1-7), work with a myriad of portable devices, connect to non-PC home-based devices, and interact with others across the globe. XP's connected features are exciting, and they're the reason I've written this book. Check out the next section for a closer look at the XP features that enable you to reach out and touch someone.
Excerpted from Windows XP Home Networking by Paul Thurrott Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.