Keep Windows XP until 2009, analysts tell Microsoft

Chances are good that Microsoft will respond if customers keep pushing

Microsoft should keep Windows XP available until at least 2009, not end the majority of sales on June 30 as currently planned, said analysts at Gartner and The Burton Group. "A good rule of thumb in any OS transition is that you have to have the original and new products available for at least two years to handle customer [migration] needs," said Richard Jones, a Burton Group vice president and service director. But Microsoft gave customers just 11 months in its original plan, in which new XP licenses would have ended on Dec. 31, and even the additional six months that Microsoft granted when it changed the date to June 30 is not enough, he said.

"It would be wise for XP to be available until the end of 2008," concurred Michael Silver, a research vice president at Gartner. Even though Microsoft does a good job of addressing application compatibility, those efforts miss homegrown applications and applications from minor and defunct software companies. That's why a two-year transition period is more sensible, Silver said.

[ Learn whether you can get XP after the June 30 cut-off sales date ]

Jones said Microsoft may have pushed a too-aggressive transition schedule because of how long it took to release Vista, a delay that deprived it of new earnings. "Microsoft is up against a rock, with Vista coming out seven years after XP's release. But it's their fault it took seven years, not my fault," he said, adding that users should not be forced to rush their transition because of Microsoft's internal delays.

Microsoft says it's listening

Microsoft has not rejected the possibility of extending XP's availability beyond June 30, saying it will listen to customer and partner feedback. "That's what informed our decision to extend the availability of XP initially and what will continue to guide us," a Microsoft spokesperson told Computerworld Australia when asked the company's reaction to InfoWorld's "Save XP" petition effort asking that XP be kept on sale indefinitely. That petition has gathered more than 79,000 signatures. (Microsoft has not responded to InfoWorld's request for a reaction to that petition.)

"It wouldn't surprise me if Microsoft backed away from its June 30 cut-off date for XP if a sizable number of XP customers continue to complain," said Ovum analyst Dwight Davis, "especially if the company sees evidence of customers abandoning Windows altogether rather than moving to Vista. Microsoft in the past has sometimes drawn lines in the sand [such as with some onerous licensing model changes a few years ago], but then relented to customer pressure and softened its positioning," he noted.

"Microsoft has a good handle on what the customer attitudes are, and if in June it's clear that they're not ready to move to Vista, I wouldn't be surprised if it keeps XP available longer," said Al Gillen, a research vice president at IDC. He noted that Microsoft was flexible in its end-of-life deadlines for Windows NT Workstation, 2000, and XP.

"I don't think an online petition is the right method" to get XP's life extended, Gillen added. Instead, he advised customers to lobby Microsoft through its own channels, such as through the feedback section of the company's site and via mechanisms such as forums available to enterprise site licensees and developers.

An "XP classic" mode for Vista?

One complaint that many users have is that Vista's UI is significantly different from XP's for no obvious reason. The Burton Group's Jones said it would have been good for Microsoft to have included a UI compatibility mode in Vista so that XP users could have kept their familiar interface. "For getting normal work done, you don't need the Aero interface," he said.

The last time Microsoft significantly changed the user interface was in 1999, when it offered Windows 2000 to replace Windows 98 and Millennium, and there are millions of people who know no other interface, Jones noted.

By contrast, PC users at the time had been through two major interface changes in just five years, from DOS to Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. "Today, there are very few people who have not used XP before," he added, so the impact of a changed UI is greater. He notes that Microsoft did not get significant adoption of Microsoft Word until it added WordPerfect shortcut support, and he said an XP UI option in Vista would boost Vista migration. But he noted that it may be too hard for Microsoft to add such a feature now and instead should have done so as part of initial Vista planning.

Ovum's Davis also has doubts as to whether an XP compatibility mode would be doable today. "I suspect that approach would raise technical complexity and compatibility issues," he said. But he understands why some people would have wanted such an option: "The difficulties that new users and former XP users experience when learning the Vista interface tend to suggest that -- for all of Microsoft's extensive customer usability research -- the company's perspective on what is intuitive is still somewhat removed from the reality of many users' experience."

Gartner's Silver said that Vista's UI is not that big a deal for most users, so he would not favor a UI compatibility mode. "I think that issue is overstated," he said. A bigger concern is the UI transition that Office 2007 forces, given its adoption of the nearly menu-less approach of Internet Explorer 7, which hides capabilities from users and makes it hard for them to know what to do or where to do it.

Ready or not, prepare for Vista
Regardless of whether Microsoft keeps XP around longer than June 30, all four analysts said that users should make the switch. The question is when, not whether.

Gartner's Silver recommended that most businesses wait until spring 2009, after Microsoft has issued more updates and software providers have had more time to update their applications.

A business not comfortable with Vista could continue to use XP for another four years, Silver said, since Microsoft will continue to support the OS with security updates until April 2014. The Burton Group's Jones said a good way to judge the right time to switch is when users start complaining they have Vista at home and want it at work. Such internal pressure is what got XP into enterprises during the transitions from Windows 98 and 2000, and gave IT the comfort that users were ready for the change, he said.

Gartner's Silver does not believe it is wise to hang on to XP in hopes that Windows 7 is a more appealing OS than Vista. Even if Windows 7 ships in late 2011, as currently expected, it will take two years for the OS to become stable and software and hardware to be made compatible. Should Windows 7 be delayed, XP users at that point will find themselves outside the security support window, he noted. That would be too dangerous for larger companies, because their own internal transition times would add another year or two to the effort once they were comfortable with a Windows 7 transition.

IDC's Gillen said businesses today should buy Vista Business or Vista Ultimate on all new PCs today, even if they use the "downgrade" rights that let them put XP Pro on those systems instead. (These rights do not extend to other versions of Vista.) By buying either of those Vista versions now, they can have XP today and upgrade to Vista later without having to buy a separate Vista license when they do upgrade. Small businesses may not realize they have this option, Gillen noted.

Consumer users have the fewest options, adds Gillen. If they buy a PC with any Vista version other than Business or Ultimate, they won't have "downgrade" rights to XP Pro, nor will they be able to get new XP licenses after June 30 through retail stores or online sellers like Dell or Hewlett-Packard.

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