Why the 'retired' Windows XP ain't going nowhere

There are simply too many specialized apps and hardware devices that can't run anything but Windows XP

Today is the day that Microsoft has fully retired Windows XP: no more patches or updates after today, not even for security, and no more support. But if you think for a minute that XP will fade away in its retirement, think again. Windows XP may have been retired, but it will have an active retirement. About a third of PCs still run it, retired by Microsoft or not. Indeed, many have no choice but to run XP.

Yes, if you're an active Windows user without special needs, you should be running Windows 7 instead of XP. Windows 7 is more secure, more modern in look and feel, and more supportive of current technologies. But for a sizable portion of the computing population, Windows 7 is not an option.

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There are two key groups of people that will be using XP for a long time. The major segment includes business users tied to specific hardware or software that requires XP itself or an XP-only version of Internet Explorer. That covers a lot of ground: homegrown apps, specialty apps from optometry office management to industrial controllers, ATMs, utility company gear, and on and on.

In many cases, the original software developers are gone or the price for the new version is unaffordable (I hear that a lot from local-government agencies and medical offices). As for hardware, much of it is essentially embedded -- electron microscopes, medical equipment, ATMs, pump regulators -- in systems that must be stable and need to run for decades. These are the equivalents of Cobol-running mainframes: Changing them out is both very expensive and very risky -- so you don't.

The other big group of XP users is composed of people who don't use computers much and are technology-averse -- people like my mom, who still doesn't quite get how a right-click works and is of an age where she's not interested in learning a new way of computing just to do what she already is doing: email, bill payment, Web research. For these people -- there are a lot of them -- Windows XP is like their 15-year-old car and 40-year-old house: old school, but perfectly serviceable. If they have a good antimalware package installed, let these people run XP forever.

A third group sometimes cited as XP-forever standbys are poor people, who can't afford a new computer. That group is not a significant one, as various Pew Research studies have shown. First, poor people are far less likely to have computers, new or old, so they tend to rely on computers at libraries and schools. Poor people also tend to use mobile devices as their computer. These two harsh facts mean they're not wed to XP as you might think. Yes, there are some people who can't afford a new PC and rely on an old XP unit, but it's not a segment that explains XP's current huge share of the PC installed base.

It's the first group that matters most, because those people are in organizations that use (or soon will use) Windows 7 as the primary OS, with XP the minority OS for those who can't move. That duality creates all sorts of headaches for both users and IT. But all a company can do is mimimize the use of XP to where there really is no good alternative, and isolate such systems where possible to prevent accidental IE and driver updates that would make them not work properly any longer.

These specialized uses aren't going away -- there's no place for them to migrate, a big failing on Microsoft's part. Yes, it created XP Mode and MED-V and other complex approaches for Windows 7, but they are complex and often do not work. They simply don't scale, and thus don't address the fundamental migration issue specialized users have. Likewise, the individuals who use XP because it's all they need and all they want to know aren't disappearing, either. As a result, XP will be an active OS for years to come, despite its formal retirement.

This article, "Why the 'retired' Windows XP ain't going nowhere," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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