Earlier this week, the rumour mill went into overdrive over the release of Windows 9, tipped for April 2015 as a full-blown overhaul of the Microsoft operating system (OS).
But as some look ahead to what the next version of the Microsoft OS might bring, the Windows XP support battle continues to drag on, with no clear end in sight. In the blue corner, we have numerous organisations refusing to migrate to a newer version of Windows, and offering thinly veiled threats to Microsoft that when they are forced to move, it will be to a different OS completely, with Apple and Linux the likely winners. And in the red corner there’s Microsoft, continually moving the goalposts for when it will definitely cut off all support for its ailing operating system.
The latest move in the saga indicates that the blue corner still has the upper hand. This week, Microsoft revealed that it will continue offering anti-malware updates to Windows XP users until July 2015, over a year after it officially cuts support for the 12-year-old operating system.
This surprise announcement came exactly a week after Microsoft tried to take a firm stance with the XP diehards, warning them it would pull support for its Security Essentials anti-malware tool from the platform at the same time as support officially ends on 8 April this year.
The news didn’t go down at all well with Microsoft customers, hence the firm retreating once more and extending XP support in some form once again. Initial support ended for XP back in April 2009, seven-and-a-half years after its release. Realising the continuing popularity of the platform, Microsoft sensibly decided to extend support via Service Pack 3 until this April. Five years ago this must have seemed more than generous, but actually this now seems a little short-sighted of the Redmond firm: according to the latest stats, almost a third of PCs are still running XP.
Those firms using the embedded version of the OS in systems such as point-of-sale terminals or thin clients have even more leeway. Even though this version was initially released just three months after the main XP OS, in January 2002, Microsoft will continue to support Windows XP Embedded until January 2016, 15 years after launch.
So what is it about XP that causes such fervour, more akin to British boy bands or TV shows about dragons and chemistry teachers? And is this devotion deserved?
The simple reason boils down to the old adage, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Windows XP still gives many firms all the functionality they need to run their business effectively. The OS might not feature a user interface filled with pictures and charms, offer touchscreen functionality or mimic a smartphone or tablet. But most IT managers and chief financial officers favour return on investment, user-friendliness and simple management over the ability for employees to use their work machines to edit a video of their latest family holiday or update Facebook via touchscreen.
As one V3 reader pointed out: "Windows XP is just an operating system (and feels like greased lightning on a modern system based on any architecture between Nehalem and Ivy Bridge) – while later versions of Windows try to be full-featured entertainment systems, which absolutely kills performance. Unfortunately, this is the last thing you need when there's work to be done."
So rather than business users wanting to upgrade to a newer OS to get extra bells and whistles, they want fast performance for basic tasks.
And the potential security risks don’t seem to be enough to force firms to upgrade either, despite Microsoft’s warnings that XP is six times less secure than Windows 8.
Security vendors are unlikely to remove XP support from their packages while they can still make money out of protecting old versions. A quick scan round security vendors such as Kaspersky Lab, Intel Security (formerly McAfee) and Symantec confirms this, with their latest 2014 antivirus packages listing XP as a supported platform. The firms have also previously posted advisories explaining that they will continue to support XP while there is external demand, while acknowledging that the safest possible option would be to use the latest OS that Microsoft is regularly patching.
So businesses know they’ll get some level of security protection from third parties with continued use of XP, while avoiding the extra outlay required for new hardware and software upgrades as part of an OS migration project.
Even those firms that have been convinced of the benefits of migration, are in no rush to do this company-wide. One example is Poundland, which is moving from XP to Windows 7, but won’t have completed this in time for the support cut-off.
In an interview with V3 in November last year, Matthew Sparks, IT services manager at the low-cost retail chain, explained that head office systems would be moved over to Windows 7 straight away. He said this was because those employees are heavy users of online applications, have more touch points with external networks, and so need a high level of security. "Stores have restricted access, though, so we can take a more phased approach. Not all stores will be migrated by the April cut-off, but some will have made the move," he said.
So what’s the likely outcome of the XP support saga? It’s clear that by April this year, the 30 percent or so of desktops running XP aren’t all going to be switched off for good. Indeed, I’d predict that by the new deadline of July 2015 for cutting XP antivirus signatures, there’ll still be at least 10 percent on the decrepit system.
So I've come up with a suggestion for Microsoft on how to tempt the XP diehards onto the latest release. The next version of Windows should be branded Windows XP 9, or Windows 9 XP, whichever the Redmond marketing whizzes prefer. And whoever gets the new CEO role needs to get his engineers working on a back-to-basics version for the new release, merging the best of XP with the faster performance offered by today’s more modern hardware. Easy.
Either that, or accept that XP customers are happy as they are, and leave them to enjoy their basic but reliable machines.
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