Will Windows XP Really Die On Cue?

Microsoft says Windows XP support ends in 2014, but can they stick to their guns?

I've been happily using Windows 7 as my primary operating system ever since its release in 2009; it's a great step up from Vista -- especially Vista -- or XP. A recent experience, however, makes me wonder if Microsoft can really drop support for Windows XP in August 2014 as it says it will.

A friend was starting a work-at-home contract job for a large organization. The company doesn't provide PCs, but for security reasons has strict rules about the kind of software that can be used on the PC that the contractor provides. For example, no peer-communication software such as IRC or Skype can be installed and the company's monitoring package will not allow it to be present. As a result, she needed a completely different PC that she could use for doing this work that was totally separate from her main computer.

Over the past six or seven years I have collected quite a few computers and parts, some of them from PCs retired as I've upgraded systems for family members. With all that hardware hanging around, it seemed that I could do her a favor and put together a PC that she could use. How hard could it be? Well, darned near impossible as it turns out. In the end, the computer I gave her was the best PC that 2005 had to offer.

The first thing I thought about doing was using one of the old PCs with Windows 7. After all, why not give a friend the latest and greatest that Microsoft has to offer? So I took one of the relatively recent PCs and installed Windows 7. It almost kinda sorta worked, but there was a problem with the video card that caused it to generate all kinds of video artifacts whenever the system went to sleep. I tried different video driver versions but no matter what it would not work.

No problem, though, I had several different video cards. However, none of them were good enough for Windows 7, which requires DirectX 9.0 support. So I tried a few different circa-2006 motherboards that had built-in video. Nope, they weren't up to snuff either. And by the way, this is easier to say than it was to do. With a pile of parts there's no easy way to know if they are good enough to run Windows 7 or not. It may take a couple of hours to set up the hardware, try an install, and find out that it's not going to work.

Perhaps this kind of Windows 7 upgrade pain wouldn't be so much of a problem in companies that keep a good inventory of the hardware they are running, or run a large number of similarly-configured PCs. Just having a working PC in the first place would have made it possible to run the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor to find out whether the PC was up to snuff. Yet based on this experience, I suspect that there are plenty of PCs in companies still running XP that don't have the ability to upgrade to Windows 7.

In October 2001, the same month Windows XP was released, I bought a new car. Today I am still driving that car and have no intentions of selling it any time soon. My PCs haven't lasted quite as long, but a good PC can definitely put in five years or more of solid service. Computers aren't becoming obsolete as quickly as they did back in the 1990s, especially as more applications become based on a browser rather than requiring lots of desktop horsepower and disk space.

With Windows 7 now totally out of the question, I considered trying Vista but didn't have any licenses available for it. That's because I tend to live by the saying, "Friends don't let friends use Vista." However, I do have quite a few Windows XP licenses from decommissioned PCs and there is no question that all of this hardware supports it. That hardware still has plenty of life left in it -- as long as it's using XP.

So with my available hardware dictating Windows XP, I checked with my friend to see if using such an "ancient" operating system might cause trouble with the company's software. This is where the software side of XP's lease on life becomes apparent. It turns out that their mission-critical line-of-business software can support Windows 98, Me, 2000, XP but not Vista or Windows 7. Here I was concerned about installing an old XP operating system, but I'd be hard pressed to find a Windows 98 PC in 2011.

So with a mere three years to go before Microsoft is supposed to drop support for XP, this company does not even support the five-year-old Vista. I suspect a lot of companies are like this one: Stuck with old hardware that can't handle Windows 7 even if they could upgrade, not wanting to buy new PCs when the old ones still work, and saddled with line-of-business applications that don't support Windows 7. Windows XP is a dam holding back a pile of hardware and software issues, and the dam is supposed to break in 3 years.

If XP really does ride off into the sunset in just three years, the good news is that the technology industry is going to see a boom of activity in the near future. Companies like this one will need to change not only their operating system, but also all of their crusty old applications. That would be great news for PC sales, Windows licenses, and applications developers. The tech industry is going to be rich, I tell you, rich!

Realistically, though, I can tell you that if push comes to shove, there is no way this large organization (and many others) can be pushed to spend a fortune on new PCs, operating systems, and applications in the next three years. XP isn't the greatest anymore, but it is working well enough for them. As far as priorities go, it seems like the company would need to deal with the problem that it can't run its line-of-business apps on Windows 7 as the first step. Given the lead times in large organizations like this, it leads me to think that there is no way Microsoft will be able to retire XP support in 2014.

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