100,000 customers tell Microsoft to save XP

Executive Editor Galen Gruman explains the real intent of InfoWorld's Save Windows XP campaign and the stakes involved for business and home users. Will Microsoft listen to 100,000 customers?

Windows Vista was supposed to be a shot in the arm for Microsoft, which had gone five years without a new desktop operating system. It hasn't worked out that way. Instead, Vista sales have been slower than XP's (when adjusted for market size) and there's been a distinct lack of passion for the new OS. In Vista's first year, InfoWorld detected a deep anxiety over Vista among technologists and consumers alike. We decided to do something about it, launching a petition drive to ask Microsoft to keep selling XP after the planned June 30 end-of-sales date. Nine weeks after that Jan. 14 launch, more than 100,000 customers worldwide have signed up. And that doesn't count parallel efforts by our colleagues in Germany and Canada.

Almost all the major media have run stories and thousands of user comments have been posted in our Save Windows XP blog. We've clearly struck a nerve.

Now what? We have asked Microsoft to have an executive meet with us so we can deliver the petition and discuss the issues we've heard from thousands of people who have commented on our site. Microsoft has declined, despite its claim that it listens to its customers. Perhaps another 100,000 need to sign up and add their weight to this effort.

[It's not too late to add your voice and tell Microsoft to save Windows XP. ]

At the same time, we've noted that our campaign to save XP has stirred up other issues, many of which have been raised by commenters on our site. Some users have misinterpreted the intent of the Save XP campaign -- as a criticism of Microsoft's support plans for XP, for example -- when in fact our issue is simple: the ongoing availability of XP licenses. As we continue to lobby Microsoft to listen to its customers, InfoWorld readers deserve a definitive explanation of what the Save XP campaign is, and is not, about.

It's not about Linux or Mac OS X
A small group of vocal Linux zealots have used the opportunity to promote Ubuntu, while a smaller and less vocal group of Mac enthusiasts has tweaked Windows users for not switching to Mac OS X. Both reactions are to be expected, but they're not what the campaign is about. It's your choice if you want to switch to another operating system, but we're not taking sides in platform battles. People should use whatever works best for them. We are saying that Vista is not ready to be the standard Windows platform, and for the majority that cannot realistically look outside the Windows world, XP needs to remain a choice.

It's not about techno-machismo versus Luddism
Another group of people argues that anyone who wants to stick with XP is afraid of the future -- not man enough to get the newest toy. That's a silly argument. While some people may look at operating systems as a way of demonstrating how cool they are, most of us use an operating system as a platform for getting stuff done, whether for running business apps, playing games, or using the Web. You don't change OSes to be cool any more than you throw out your house's furnace for a new technology every time one comes along. Not unless you have more money than sense.

It's not about Microsoft's XP support
A more rational version of that argument is that there's nothing to worry about, since Microsoft will continue to support XP for some time. That's true, but we have not criticized Microsoft's XP support plans. We have criticized Microsoft for ending the availability of XP on new machines past the June 30 end-of-sales date. There's a huge different between support and sales. It does you no good to have ongoing XP support if you can't get XP on a new system.

It is about controlling your environment
What we've heard loud and clear from both IT professionals and end-users is that many of them do not want Vista. They tend to have different reasons.

For IT, the reasons center on the cost of training, deployment, and support. The biggest concern is over compatibility -- both for hardware and software. Vista has major compatibility issues, which Gartner says likely won't be truly fixed for another year. Not all of this is Microsoft's fault, but this issue isn't about fault. The issue is the liability of moving to Vista. Until Microsoft significantly reduces that liability, XP should be easy to obtain as needed.

Vista does bring IT some advantages, but IT people we spoke with also recognize that users don't get much from Vista, at least not on the surface. So deploying Vista is just another project that IT needs to prepare for and prioritize under its own schedule, not Microsoft's.

Individual users and small businesses are particularly adverse to Vista. There are several reasons, but two come up most often.

One is that Vista represents a significant shift in user interface, to one that is harder to use than XP's. In an attempt to shield users from the OS, Microsoft has hidden or done away with many menu options. I can't tell you how many calls I got from friends and family members who simply couldn't find anything on their new Vista systems. (I've downgraded them all to the XP they know and understand.) Maybe they could figure it out at some point, but they don't see why they should just so they can check e-mail, play a game, or bring some work home. I've been a user of every desktop OS since the Apple IIe's -- including every version of DOS, Windows, and Mac OS, as well as some versions of GEM, OS/2, and VAX/VMS -- and I struggled with Vista's interface. I too went back to XP.

The other reason is compatibility. A lot of software and hardware doesn't work with Vista. People can't afford to keep buying new stuff just to maintain compatibility with a new OS. It might be good for the economy if they could, but let's get real. Software and hardware vendors should update their software for compatibility at no charge to their customers (Microsoft can foot the bill if it insists on an OS change that breaks correctly designed software and hardware drivers).

The larger issue underlying all of this is the fact that Windows is not merely a product. It is a fundamental part of the global infrastructure, like the Internet and the internal combustion engine. When Microsoft changes that infrastructure, the human and economic effects are huge.

At its scale, I personally believe that Microsoft has to be a steward of the public good, not just a vendor. This is at the heart of why the European Union has been after Microsoft for a decade, and why a century ago the U.S. and European nations started regulating utilities, banks, and manufacturers with similar reach. They're not just selling toothpaste and soda pop.

What Microsoft and PC makers need to do
This brings us back to the purpose of the "Save XP" campaign: letting people control their environments. Questionable UI changes and compatibility issues threaten that control. Worse, the simple option to retaining control -- being able to add XP on new systems as needed -- is being eliminated.

Until the market is ready to switch to Vista for its own purposes, XP should be available easily. That means available on OEM and system-builder PCs -- and not just a few models. That means available in shrinkwrapped versions you can order from Amazon.com or get at Best Buy.

That does not mean Microsoft's stingy options for XP availability after June 30. Sure, enterprises that have a Vista upgrade site license can downgrade their systems to XP, but very few others. If you have Vista on your new PC -- which nearly everyone does -- there are no such downgrade rights in any meaningful sense. (Technically, you have those rights if the OEM provides you an XP downgrade as well, but even Microsoft's spokespeople acknowledge that very few do.) If you bought a shrinkwrapped full or upgrade license of any version of Vista other than Vista Business or Vista Ultimate, you can't downgrade. In other words, almost no one but enterprises can downgrade to XP on new machines.

Worse, many new Vista-equipped PCs don't have XP drivers available, so they can't downgrade to XP even if they have a license that allows it. That's the fault of Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Acer, Sony, Toshiba, and so on. Buyers should call them on it by insisting on XP-compatible equipment across the board.

Microsoft should toss Vista in the trash, as the company did with Windows Millennium eight years ago, then issue a Windows XP Second Edition (as it did with Windows 98 eight years ago) that capitalizes on some of Vista's key benefits. Then the company should focus on Windows 7, rather than keep trying to push Vista down unwilling customers' throats. If that's too radical, how about doing an XP Second Edition while also continuing to rework Vista? Then Windows 7 can be the common upgrade path. Microsoft did that with Windows 98 Second Edition and Windows 2000, after all.

We know the chances of either scenario are slim: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said that he's using the well-designed Windows Server 2008's optimizations for desktop Vista as a way to push Vista onto PCs. Microsoft clearly will keep pushing until we all give up, or maybe the EU -- the only entity that seems to recognize that Microsoft is more than just a vendor -- fines it another few billion.

But there has been a steady, if quiet, stream of mid- and high-level departures from Microsoft, especially from the Vista management crew, in the last six months. Maybe the new blood will be able to chart a different course, not stick blindly to the past playbook.

Something's rotten in Redmond
Some people have accused InfoWorld of an anti-Microsoft bias -- which we believe our very positive reviews of Windows Server 2008, among other products, belies. But it is fair to say that we believe that Microsoft is wrong about Vista and needs to stop pretending that all is well.

The whole Vista effort has been a series of missteps and miscues. The OS shipped three years late, minus many of the key features originally touted. Starved of OS upgrade revenue, Microsoft rushed the end of XP's life -- originally giving it just a year, then extending it to 18 months.

A Microsoft spokesperson told us that there is no standard transition period for major software at Microsoft; instead, there's an assumed five-year life for a major software product, and the overlap depends on when the replacement actually shifts. In Vista's case, the new OS took more than five years to ship, forcing XP to stay on the market for more than its planned five-year lifespan. Microsoft had to actually decide what the overlap would be by essentially extending XP's life. So it initially gave us a year -- gee, thanks. Analysts we spoke with recommended that Microsoft provide customers at least two years for transition, regardless of when the products actually ship. Microsoft should take their advice and base its transition plans on what's good for customers, not on internal sales milestones.

The Vista missteps continue. A few weeks ago, there were the rapid-fire series of mistakes with Vista SP1, with several significant flaws making their way into the version sent to manufacturing and provided to some customers.

Shortly after that we learned that Microsoft's own executives had compatibility problems with Vista when it was released. If Microsoft's own execs had these problems, how could the company expect users not to?

Those embarrassing revelations came in court documents that pointed out a more serious problem: Microsoft misled customers as to whether their systems and peripherals could handle Vista. The company decided to certify whole swaths of hardware it knew were not really Vista-capable as "Vista Capable." (Buyers whose systems were clearly not Vista-capable sued, and that case is what produced the internal documentation.) Jim Allchin, the Vista chief, said in court filings that he was unaware of that decision; whether true or not, that fiasco shows yet again how dysfunctional Microsoft's Vista management was.

And this rocky history shows why XP should be kept available for new sales as long as the market is not ready for Vista. Microsoft has mishandled and underdelivered on Vista, and it should not expect its customers to pay for its own mistakes.

The only option available
The bottom line is that the rush to force Vista on everyone is just wrong. Contrary to the claims of Mac and Linux zealots, most people don't really have much choice. You can't vote with your feet. This is not a free market where there are lots of options that customers can switch among as needed -- there's even less choice than for TV or phone service (which interestingly enough remains somewhat regulated because of that fact). The price to switch to Mac OS or Linux is quite high.

The only sensible choice is for customers to pressure Microsoft to do the right thing. That's the real intent of the "Save XP" campaign. Whether you sign our petition or instead tell Microsoft directly what you think, now is the time to do so. The clock is ticking, and in fewer than four months there won't be an XP option for most of you.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.