Twelve years is an eternity -- no, several eternities -- in the tech industry. When Microsoft launched Windows XP in October 2001, desktops and laptops ruled, smartphones were in their infancy, and consumer tablets were nearly a decade away. Most operating systems from that era are long gone, but Windows XP has proven surprisingly resilient. According to web-tracking firm Net Applications, in January 2013 Windows XP was the second most popular operating system among desktop PC users, holding steady with a 29.23% market share.
Windows XP, the successor to the business-oriented Windows 2000 and consumer-focused Windows ME, remained entrenched in the enterprise even as Microsoft released newer versions of its flagship OS, including Windows Vista (2007), Windows 7 (2009), and Windows 8 (2012). All operating systems must die at some point, of course, and it appears that Windows XP's time finally has come. Microsoft will cease support for the venerable OS in April, a move that will leave XP users highly vulnerable to security risks.
How did XP manage to last this long? Perhaps it owes much of its longevity to the shortcomings of two of its three successors.
Windows Vista suffered from a variety of technical maladies, including slow performance, software and hardware incompatibilities, and reduced laptop-battery life. While Microsoft eventually resolved many of these glitches, Vista's reputation never recovered, and the OS was largely shunned by enterprise users.
Windows 7 was a notable improvement over Vista, offering faster startup and better compatibility. It soon became Microsoft's most popular OS and remains so today. According to NetApplications, Windows 7's desktop PC market share last month topped 47%.
And then there's Windows 8.x and its controversial redesign -- a touch-oriented UI bolted on top of the traditional Windows desktop. Needless to say, Win 8 has been a disappointment thus far, particularly among organizations reluctant to retrain workers to learn its new tile-oriented Modern UI. Microsoft may be campaigning hard to persuade Windows XP users to migrate to Windows 8.1, but Windows XP upgraders may prefer the more comfortable confines of Windows 7.
Many PCs running Windows XP are big iron beasts from the new millennium, and there's a good chance they'll prove too old to upgrade. This could spur sales of Windows PCs, or so Redmond hopes. Microsoft badly needs a catalyst to boost business and consumer interest in its flagging Windows 8.x platform, which is selling at a slower pace than Windows 7 did at this stage in its life.
Now dig into our slideshow and learn more before deciding how to proceed.Jeff Bertolucci is a technology journalist in Los Angeles who writes mostly for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, The Saturday Evening Post, and InformationWeek. View Full Bio