Microsoft's XP Eulogy: Not Everyone's Listening

Many businesses say they still have good reasons to run Windows XP -- and ignore Microsoft's ongoing warnings to ditch the OS that's on life support.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

July 18, 2013

7 Min Read

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Microsoft seizes every opportunity to remind us that it will soon end support for Windows XP. When the clock strikes midnight on April 8, 2014, though, you can bet plenty of computers will still run on the popular operating system.

The reason is in a part a numbers game. In the hyper-change world of technology, XP has had remarkable staying power: Around 37% of PCs worldwide still run the OS, according to Net Applications. Microsoft said recently that 30% of its small and midsize business (SMB) customers still have at least some of their employees using XP. HP pegs XP usage among its business customers at a higher figure, 40%, based on a recent poll conducted by Harris Interactive.

That agrees with a street-level view: Managed services provider (MSP) Tabush, based in New York City, said around 40% of the 3,000 or so desktops it manages for customers are still XP-based. CEO Morris Tabush predicted his firm will pare that down to 20% by the end of the year, but he nonetheless expects some customers to ride XP well beyond the sunset.

"They are still using it simply because it works, and many of the employees who have these PCs spend all their time in one or two business-specific apps, so the OS doesn't really matter to them," Tabush said via email interview.

[ For another take on why companies aren't making the switch, see Windows 8 Tablets' Big Flaw: Hardware Compromise. ]

Microsoft is effectively a victim of its own success with XP, which is now three versions old -- and soon to be four if you count Windows 8.1 as a full-fledged release. Shareholders and consumers want the next big thing. Many SMBs just want what works. Which is why some businesses will simply ignore Microsoft's end-of-life date for XP. This might also put Microsoft in some conflict with its vast partner ecosystem. Referring to the number of SMBs still on XP, Microsoft exec Erwin Visser wrote in a recent blog post: "This represents a huge opportunity for partners to help move people off Windows XP and onto a modern operating system. Let's get the message out, it's time to switch!"

You don't need to read too deeply between the lines to understand what Microsoft is ultimately saying to its partners and, by extension, those partners' customers: We'd really, really like you to start buying Windows 8 devices. The XP end-of-support deadline delivers as much of a marketing message as it does a support or security imperative. But the "modern OS" part of Visser's sermon misses the mark. Many of the IT pros and service providers I heard from for this story, some of them Microsoft partners, said that their customers' decisions to stick with XP were often driven by hardware and budget -- which are irrevocably intertwined for most businesses, OS support deadlines be darned.

"The business owners generally have the 'if it ain't broke' attitude, and despite our urging, they don't see the value in spending extra money to replace machines that still work," said Eric Schlissel, CEO of Los Angeles-based GeekTek IT Services, via email.

Moreover, Schlissel said there comes a point where beating his customers over the head is simply bad business. You've heard the saying: The customer is always right. That's because customers pay the bills. Some of Schlissel's customers will stay with XP until the hardware it's running on fails, at which point they'll upgrade both hardware and software. "It's a waiting game at this point, and we get diminishing returns from pushing our clients," Schlissel said.

Much larger technology providers point to a similar hardware-driven issue. Paul Moore, senior director of mobile product management and marketing at Fujitsu America, said the Microsoft partner is doing its part to educate customers on how the XP end-of-support date could impact them in areas like security, bug fixes and so forth. He also noted that enterprise support contracts for businesses that want to keep XP around beyond next April can be expensive. Approximately 20% of Fujitsu America's client businesses still run XP, Moore said.

"The reality for our customers is that they will move off of XP when they buy new hardware," Moore said via email. "The need for hardware is driving the move, not the XP end-of-support [deadline]."

While he recommends that businesses buying new hardware should go with Windows 7 or Windows 8, Moore noted that OS upgrades aren't always a straightforward choice. "Qualifying a new OS can be a difficult process for customers if they have line-of-business apps [and] licenses for older versions of software that will require the purchase of new licenses, et cetera," he said. Businesses comfortable with their current hardware portfolio, but concerned about the end of Windows XP support, should look to upgrade to Windows 7, Moore added. If hardware costs are the steady jab, then application compatibility delivers the knockout punch for Windows shops. Some businesses and their IT providers have too much at stake in certain applications, on top of their hardware investments, to bear the burden of saying goodbye to XP.

Oleg Moskalensky, president of Productive Computer Systems in the Seattle area, pointed to one of his clients, a resort in Idaho. He developed the system that the entire property runs on -- reservations, scheduling, housekeeping, you name it. That was around the time of XP's turn-of-the-century launch, and Moskalensky built the system in the Office XP version of Access, using Virtual Basic for Applications (VBA) and running Windows XP.

"It's still running to this day," Moskalensky said in a phone interview. "People kind of open their eyes when I tell them I'm still running Access systems from back then, but they are."

He's been "stuck" since Office 2003 rolled out, which wasn't compatible with his large, complex system built with Office XP. New versions of Windows complicated the matter for Moskalensky and the Idaho resort, among other customers -- he compared it to being frozen like Han Solo at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Application compatibility is not a click -- or touch, in Windows 8 terms -- of a button for some businesses.

"Microsoft wound up doing it in such a way that, on the one hand, it's a situation where we're moving into the future where you need to give people more features, flexibility, innovation, things like that -- so I can kind of appreciate it," Moskalensky said. "At the same time, it suffers compatibility-wise and kind of forces people -- like it forces me and my clients -- to run XP."

It's not just a SMB issue, either. Moskalensky, who has done training and consulting for a couple of Fortune 500 firms in the Seattle area, said IT pros at those large enterprises are also still married to XP. "For their IT department, it takes a long time to migrate and they already have all these applications that are developed and running in that environment," he said. "[XP] is prevalent because people get used to running what they're running, they bought these machines that are still functional, and so until they wind up buying new computers which have a shiny Windows 8 sticker on it, they don't really feel they want to take [on] the hassle."

For some of Moskalensky's customers, moving off of XP means, in brick-and-mortar terms, demolishing everything and rebuilding from scratch. It's inevitable, but not in any way that businesses like the Idaho resort are excited about. When the time comes, Moskalensky said he'll move those client businesses to the latest version of Windows, in large part to hopefully hedge against future compatibility headaches. Until then, though, expect him and plenty of SMBs to ignore Microsoft's reminders about the end of XP support -- and the corresponding pitch to move into the devices-and-services world Windows 8 was built for.

"It's the human deal about not wanting to change," Moskalensky said. "XP's running pretty reliably for most things, and so [businesses] are still running it, it's still working for them, why change? Just because Microsoft announces something newer and shinier?"

About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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