Still using Windows XP

Support for Windows XP ended in 2014, thus as of today nearly 6 years passed, and still, I’m using it from time to time.

End of support means that no updates will be provided, security bugs won’t get fixed, and that software developers probably will not provide applications for it.

Nevertheless, in a constrained environment, like a virtual machine without an internet connection, I found it very useful.

My first use case in 2020 was the following.

I had to fill a PDF document. PDF is an open format since 2008, so it is well supported by many operating systems and applications, on Wikipedia you can find a list of programs and libraries for viewing, creating and interacting with pdf files.

While the PDF standard is not that complex, even if it has some tricky parts, unfortunately, it can embed a lot of content, for example, PDF files, Fonts, Images, Binary blobs, digital signatures, XML(!) and Javascript code to be executed(!).

The two last points make PDF documents a complex data type to parse, render and edit correctly.

The document I had to fill did not render correctly in Firefox, because it had some XFA forms. It’s a known issue that such file types exist, and most readers I tried do not support (or fully support), those type of documents.

The documents display a nice text message

Please wait…​

If this message is not eventually replaced by the proper contents of the document, your PDF viewer may not be able to display this type of document.

You can upgrade to the latest version of Adobe Reader for Windows®, Mac, or Linux® by visiting http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html.

For more assistance with Adobe Reader visit http://www.adobe.com/support/products/ acrreader.html.

But there is no client for Linux systems, except for Android.

Of course, I could have complained with those who gave me the PDF document, convincing him that PDF is a not-so-ideal standard, stories about vendor lock-ins, interoperability, and that a simple .txt file would have sufficed for our needs. Or instead of complaining, I could have download and tested more readers, but my time is limited, and I had to fill this formular.

As Adobe Reader would have surely supported the PDF file, I tried installing it under wine, but as reported in WINEHQ, some workarounds are necessary even with the latest version.

So I opted for a 100% secure solution: virtualize windows.

My computer can run Virtualbox with Windows 10 on it, but looking at the minimum system requirements (at least 32 GB disk space and 1 GB ram, which in my experience is not enough if you do not want to wait all the time), they are considerably high for just viewing and filling a PDF file. Especially since when running the virtual machine, I need to pay some attention, as running too many programs will saturate my RAM.

As a comparison, the recommended (not minimal) system requirements for Windows XP are 128 MB memory and 1.5 GB dis space.

These requirements are of course too exaggerated for a PDF viewer (maybe not the RAM requirements, but the disk surely), but not so much for a platform for letting the pdf viewer (and possibly other programs) run.

Now the crucial question. Can I run Adobe reader on Windows XP, as the system has been discontinued 6 years ago?

No, the current version f Adobe reader does not support Windows XP. But the previous one, Adobe Reader XI, does. It is not supported anymore since 2017, but it can still be downloaded from the official site.

Long story short.

  • I was able to install and activate Windows XP SP3 with Virtualbox.

  • I disabled the network adapter after activation (shared folder will still work)

  • I was able to download and install Adobe Reader XI on the Windows XP system.

  • I was able to open the PDF document, fill the fields and save it

As it is not the first time I had to resort to Windows to accomplish some task, most of the time I just use the current version. The same holds for the program I want to use (on Windows), normally I just pick the latest version available.

While ideally alternative programs like native programs for Linux, or the embedded reader in the browser will catch up, or software like WINE or ReactOS will permit me to use Windows Applications without using Windows, in the meantime I’ll use the original Windows operating system.

I actually expect that many times, an older version is sufficient for most needs. Of course, supporting an "antique" operating system is not a high priority in most projects, but it has its advantages. Compared to the latest Windows version, it’s system requirements are so low that it could run on a Raspberry PI (and apparently it does: https://www.techrepublic.com/article/classic-windows-on-a-35-computer-how-to-fire-up-windows-3-1-95-98-and-xp-on-your-raspberry-pi/]), which makes possible to run Windows Programs on very tiny and cheap platforms, without necessarily porting the program to GNU/Linux.

Of course supporting even older versions of Windows, like Windows 95 and 98, would require even fewer resources from the end user, but much more while developing the program, and as already stated: there are not so many use cases that might be relevant for the Software developers.

Conclusion

Make a backup of old installers and operating Systems, and ensure you can install as many programs as possible offline. Storage is very cheap, so it should not be a problem to keep those files around.

As software most of the time seems to outlive the expectations of its creators, it is good to expect that parts of the system that depend on the internet not be fully reliable.

Also, please, as a developer, do not set unnecessary constraints. Do not use the shiny new interfaces provided only by the last version of your operating system of choice. Especially if those do not provide any real benefit.

In the meantime, let’s hope that

  • Support for PDF files gets better in all open source readers

  • WINE and Reactos compatibility increases to the point we can reliably install nearly all Windows Programs without hacking around