Windows 7’s XP Mode Could Boost Linux and The Mac


Window 7’s XP Mode will get users used to the idea of desktop virtualisation – and make it easier for them to move to Linux or Mac OS, says Jason Brooks

Last month, Microsoft announced that Windows 7 will include an XP Mode, which combines the company’s desktop and presentation virtualisation technologies to serve up applications that won’t run properly on Windows 7 from a virtual XP SP3 instance.

When I heard about XP Mode, I was immediately struck by the marketing benefits that the feature can provide for non-Windows platforms (alongside other factors that could make this a good time for desktop Linux). That’s because tapping desktop-based virtualisation as a bridge for Windows software compatibility gaps is one of the keys to achieving a smooth transition from Windows to a competing platform.

When someone asks me about moving away from Windows to Linux or the Mac, I tell them that they are likely to find native Mac or Linux replacements for their Windows applications, but that it may be necessary to run a copy of Windows in a virtual machine (VM) for certain applications.

I keep a Windows VM on my Linux laptop for things like product testing and attending GoToMeeting conferences. (Microsoft’s own Live Meeting is, by comparison, very Linux-friendly.) The Windows VM approach to platform switching can work pretty well, but this tactic does have various wrinkles.

First, you need a licensed copy of Windows and enough RAM to devote to the Windows guest without starving your host OS. Then, you’ll need the same sort of security software and patching policies you would apply to a regular Windows instance. Finally, depending on the type of application you’re dealing with, performance might be an issue, and applications that require direct access to hardware resources might not work at all.

Now that Microsoft is pushing virtualisation as a crutch for migrating from XP to Windows 7, it may occur to many that upgrading from XP to 7 wouldn’t prove significantly more painful than moving from XP to OS X or Linux, particularly since XP Mode on Windows 7 shares most of the same wrinkles that mar XP on Linux or Mac set-ups.

More importantly though, XP Mode will introduce the idea and the practice of running multiple, reasonably isolated OS instances on a single machine to a broader pool of users. As more people embrace the practice, I expect to see Microsoft and other vendors work out more of its kinks and, eventually, offer new classes of products aimed specifically at enabling these Russian doll desktop scenarios.

Despite the possibly beneficial side effects of XP Mode for alternative platforms, I believe that Microsoft and Windows are best-positioned to take advantage of the rise of the virtual desktop machines.

As eWEEK Labs has discussed recently, the lines between personal and company devices and computing environments are now more blurred than ever. As I see it, the best way to provide both individual users and large organisations with the control they require to satisfy their needs is to provide multiple virtualised environments on a single piece of hardware.

Given its advantages around available applications, integrated identity and desktop management capabilities, and its mind and market share among businesses, Windows would seem to be the clear option for delivering the managed corporate desktop element of these mixed environments.

XP Mode could be a first step toward colonising the virtual desktop territories, but for something like this to really take off, Microsoft will have to begin approaching VMs as a first-class “hardware” platform and look toward stripping out bits that aren’t required in these environments. Also, we’ll have to see more advances in bare-metal (installing directly on top of the hardware) desktop and notebook hypervisor technologies, like those demonstrated by Citrix in the form of its Project Independence.

Maybe desktop platform diversity and Microsoft monoculture can live side by side, after all. If nothing else, Microsoft would probably be less touchy about mounting “I’m a Mac” choruses if more managed Windows instances lurked beneath Apple’s matte aluminium covers.

Jason Brooks is executive editor at