Microsoft (MSFT) Windows XP's end is nigh, and you might think a longtime Linux user such as myself would have little reason to care. But I do, because XP's impending end of life means virtualizing Windows apps on open source platforms is about to become much more difficult. Here's why.
I made the jump from the closed-source world to Linux—irst Mandriva, then Fedora, now (mostly) Ubuntu—about eight years ago, and never really looked back. But that doesn't mean Windows entirely ceased to play a role in my computing life. The sad reality is that everybody needs to run a Windows app now and then, Richard Stallman excepted.
That's why my Ubuntu PC always has VirtualBox installed, and Windows XP configured to run inside it as a virtual machine. I don't boot up the Windows instance very often, but it is handy when I need to run Microsoft Office—which is, I'm sorry to say, the office suite I resort to when working on a book manuscript, since LibreOffice appears hopelessly buggy when handling very large documents—or when I want to blast back to the carefree days of yore and play Age of Kings.
I can certainly do those things with Windows Vista, Windows 7 or Windows 8, too. But unlike Windows XP, those more recent editions of Windows suck up pretty significant chunks of memory and CPU time when running in a virtual environment, which makes them much more difficult to run seamlessly on top of a Linux desktop.
Officially, Windows XP can run on as few as 64MB of memory and a Pentium 233MHz processor. Unofficially, it will work with only 20MB of RAM and a Pentium CPU clocked down to 8MHz (yes, 8!), if you don't mind waiting a half hour for the machine to boot. System requirements this minimal mean running Windows inside VirtualBox puts about as much strain on a host operating system as opening another Web browser.
Come April 8, however, when Windows XP reaches its end of life, that no longer will be the case. Unless Linux users subscribe to a third party for security updates that may or may not actually work, there will be no way of running Windows inside a virtual environment without tying up many more resources than humble Windows XP demands—unless, of course, they want to take their chances on an unpatched XP system, but I wouldn't subject even my 12-year-old copy of Age of Kings to that.
Does this mean I'll be sad to see Windows XP descend down the blue tunnel into the Afterlife? Not quite. If the nicest thing I can say about an operating system is "it virtualizes well," that's not saying much. But Windows XP's demise does mean my fellow Linux cohorts and I will have to try that much harder to survive in a Windows-oriented world.