Windows XP turns 11, still not dead yet

The aged OS has 18 months until retirement, but it's not going quietly into the night, say analysts

On the same day Microsoft loudly proclaims Windows 8 in New York, the aging-but-still-going Windows XP today quietly celebrated its 11th birthday.

On Oct. 25, 2001, Microsoft launched Windows XP, unknowingly unleashing its most successful operating system ever. If they only could do the same today, the company's executives must think as they assemble for a day-long Windows 8 launch party.

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"It was a good operating system," said David Johnson, an analyst with Forrester, in an interview today. "It was a very, very good operating system ... a superb OS because it removed a lot of pain."

So superb, in fact, that it continues to run on an enormous number of PCs across the globe. According to Web metrics firm Net Applications, Windows XP powered about 41 percent of all personal computers -- 45 percent of those running one form or another of Windows -- in September. Only the much newer Windows 7 has a bigger share, and that only recently: It wasn't until this August that Windows 7 passed XP to take the top spot.

By Forrester's count, said Johnson, 48 percent of enterprise PCs now run Windows 7. But 38 percent of their systems continue to rely on Windows XP. That last number is one Microsoft desperately wants -- has wanted, in fact, for over a year -- to drive to zero, preferably by getting customers to dump old hardware, upgrade to new machines and devices, and pick Windows 8 as their OS.

As far back as June 2011, a Microsoft manager claimed it was "time to move on" from XP, while even earlier that year an executive on the Internet Explorer team belittled XP as the "lowest common denominator" when he explained why the OS wouldn't run the then-new IE9.

What's the rush to dump the old XP?

On April 8, 2014, less than 18 months from now, Windows XP exits all support when it receives its final security update. From then on, most users of the OS will be exposed to attack from hackers exploiting new vulnerabilities that Microsoft simply won't patch. That's not the only problem. ISVs, or "independent software vendors," tech-speak for third-party developers, already have or will soon drop support for their XP programs.

But with so many machines still running the venerable XP, what's the chance that all users, particularly those in enterprises, will be off the OS in 18 months when Microsoft puts it out to pasture? Little or none, said Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner.

"There's a good chance that 10 percent or 15 percent of organizations' PCs will still be on XP after support ends," said Silver in a Wednesday interview. "That wouldn't be atypical, actually, for a Windows operating system."

Forrester's Johnson said his firm's numbers were similar, although it posed the question differently to enterprises. "We asked 'What are you deploying now on new PCs?' and enterprises are saying the 76 percent are deploying Windows 7. But 16 percent are still going with XP," said Johnson.

"When we ask them what they'll be deploying 12 months from now, their answer is Windows 7, with 60 percent, Windows 8, at 26 percent, and Windows XP, 3 percent," Johnson continued. "But enterprises are notoriously optimistic about future deployments, so I'd say that by the time it reaches retirement, XP will still be on 15 percent to 20 percent of PCs."

That's actually lower than projections run with Net Applications' data, which estimates the percentage of PCs worldwide running each version of Windows. If the trend tracked by the measurement company over the last 12 months holds true going forward -- not a certainty; XP's decline has accelerated in the past year by about 8 percent -- more than a quarter of the planet's PCs will be running XP in April 2014.

Now that's staying power. But not a smart strategy for enterprises, Johnson and Silver said. "If they haven't started migrating from Windows XP at this point, they're far behind," said Silver. "They need to get their act together."

Both Gartner and Forrester have recommended, and continue to recommend, that organizations still running Windows XP migrate not to its successor, Vista, or to the brand-spanking-new Windows 8, but to 2009's Windows 7. "There's safety in numbers," Silver noted. "Would you rather be on Windows 7, where everyone else is, or with the 20 percent of those running Windows 8 [in 2014]?"

The two research firms have urged the XP-to-Windows 7 migration on clients for over two years, once it became clear that the latter was stable, successful -- meaning it would be widely supported by third-party developers -- and secure.

Microsoft has said exactly the same, although that drumbeat, once loud, has quieted considerably as Windows 8 moved towards final.

But as Silver said, firms that have left things to the last minute may be in for a world of hurt. "If [an enterprise] hasn't made any progress toward Windows 7, the time to test, verify and move from XP in just 18 months, well, that has a low probability." Even a year after the 2014 deadline, up to 5 percent of enterprise PCs could still be running XP, said Silver. Among the worst offenders in that potential camp: health care.

"Health care is one of the worst," said Silver, "simply because so many vertical market health care developers drag their feet so much."  The image of a hospital, doctor's office, even a dentist's, running an out-of-support operating system isn't reassuring.

Johnson was a bit more bullish on the chances of firms winning the race. "Yes, it's still possible," he said. But to pull it off in 18 months, an organization will have to dispense with an attritional strategy -- where only new machines are deployed with Windows 7 -- and tackle an everything-at-once chore.

Companies, or even consumers, who continue to think XP is "just good enough" to handle their computing needs can take steps, of course, to reduce some of the risk of running an out-of-date OS.

Gartner has a 10-item list it uses when it talks to clients who won't, or can't, leave XP. "They have a number of choices, they can buy Custom Support from Microsoft, they can move applications that require XP to a Remote Desktop Services Server, they can segregate XP PCs on a separate network," said Silver, ticking off three.

Custom Support is the name of the after-retirement support plans Microsoft sells to businesses to cover some products, including Windows. Among the benefits of Custom Support: Microsoft continues to provide security updates graded as "critical" for a product, say XP, after it exits general support.

One tactic everyone can use, including consumers, is to switch browsers when XP falls off the support list. "IE8 won't be supported [after April 2014] on Windows XP," Silver noted.

Because Microsoft has refused to support IE9 or the even newer IE10 on XP, when IE8 support ends, XP users will have to dump the latter to run a secured browser. It's likely that other browser makers -- Google and Mozilla in particular -- will continue to support their Chrome and Firefox on XP up to and well past the 2014 cut-off. Mozilla, for example, dropped support for Apple's OS X Leopard, an OS that Apple itself abandoned in June 2011, only this month.

Also off the support list when XP retires: 2001's IE6 and 2006's IE7. Gartner has that covered on its list as well, suggesting that enterprises who worry about in-house or third-party Web applications written for IE6 and IE7 move to Windows 7 -- where those browsers are not allowed -- but turn to a third-party product that lets customers run the creaky browsers on the newer OS. One that fits Gartner's bill is Browsium's Ion, the follow-on to the company's earlier Unibrows, or the same firm's just-released Catalyst, a browser management tool.

Silver was doubtful that Microsoft would ever repeat the longevity of Windows XP, if only because it's under pressure to pick up the OS release pace, which would make it much less likely that any single edition of Windows would gain the 85 percent-and-up share that XP accumulated in its salad days of 2006.

"We do think Microsoft will pick up the pace, at least for the next release," Silver said. "We think that will be a 'polishing' release, and come within about two years. It will smooth out all the rough edges of Windows 8. That's when we think a lot of folks will move [from Windows 7]."

Forrester has the same future in mind for Microsoft. On Monday, a colleague of Johnson's, Frank Gillett, predicted the Redmond, Wash. developer will shift to a schedule that, if not annual, will certainly be brisker than the every-three-years its used since 2006. "In the face of Apple and Google, they have to figure out how to release Windows faster than every three years," Gillett said Tuesday.

Somewhere, XP is laughing.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Read more about Windows in Computerworld's Windows Topic Center.

This story, "Windows XP turns 11, still not dead yet" was originally published by Computerworld.

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