AS SOME LOOK AHEAD to what Microsoft's next version of its PC operating system (OS) might bring and rumours of Windows 9 are starting to trickle out, the Windows XP support battle continues to drag on.
In the blue corner, we have many organisations refusing to migrate to a newer version of Windows and making thinly-veiled threats to Microsoft that when they are forced to move, it will be to a different OS completely. And in the red corner there's Microsoft, continually moving the goalposts for when it will cut off all support for the older OS definitely, for ever and ever, never to be resurrected.
The latest move in the saga indicates that the blue corner still has the upper hand. This week, Microsoft revealed that it will continue offering anti-malware updates to Windows XP users until July 2015, over a year after it officially cuts support for the 12-year-old OS.
This surprise announcement came exactly a week after Microsoft tried to take a firm stance with the Windows XP die-hards, warning them that it would pull support for its Security Essentials anti-malware tool from Windows XP at the same time it drops support on 8 April.
The news didn't go down at all well with Microsoft customers, and so a week later, the firm was forced to retreat once more and extend Windows XP support in some form even further to placate users who might ditch all Microsoft systems in protest in favour of Apple, Linux or Google alternatives. Initial support ended for Windows XP in April 2009, seven and a half years after its release. Realising the continuing popularity of the OS, Microsoft sensibly decided to extend support via Service Pack 3 until this April, which five years ago must have seemed more than generous. But actually this now seems a little short-sighted of the Redmond firm, as according to the latest statistics, almost a third of PCs are still running Windows XP.
Those firms using the embedded version of the OS in systems like point of sale terminals or thin clients have even more leeway. Even though this version was initially released just three months after the main Windows XP OS, in January 2002, Microsoft will continue to support Windows XP Embedded until January 2016, 15 years after launch.
So what is it about Windows XP that causes such fervour, more akin to that for British boy bands or TV shows about dragons and chemistry teachers? And is this devotion deserved?
The simple reason boils down to the old adage, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Windows XP still gives many firms all the functionality they need to run their businesses effectively. The OS might not feature a user interface filled with pictures and charms, offer touch-screen functionality or mimic a smartphone or tablet, but most IT managers and CFOs favour return on investment, user-friendliness and ease of management over capabilities for employees to use their work machines to edit videos of their latest family holidays or update Facebook via touchscreens.
When it comes to people using machines at work, rather than wanting to upgrade to a newer OS to get extra bells and whistles, they mostly just want fast performance for basic tasks. I'm no longer a Windows user at work, but I certainly can verify this from my own experience of using Windows XP, Windows 7 and Windows 8 on previous work systems and at home. I'd rather have a machine that is very efficient at the most basic tasks I frequently need to perform - email, documents, spreadsheet, web browser - than an advanced system that is so clogged with features that it stalls every time I want to open a webpage or check my email.
The potential security risks don't seem to be enough to force firms to upgrade either, despite Microsoft's warnings that Windows XP is six times less secure than Windows 8. Security vendors are unlikely to remove Windows XP support from their packages while they can still make money from protecting old versions. A quick scan around security vendors like Kaspersky Lab, McAfee - now Intel Security - and Symantec confirms this, with their latest 2014 antivirus packages listing Windows XP as a supported OS. Security firms have also posted advisories explaining they will continue to support Windows XP while there is external demand, while acknowledging that the safest possible option would be to use the latest Windows OS that Microsoft is regularly patching.
So businesses know that they'll get some level of security protection from third parties with continued use of Windows XP, while avoiding extra outlay for new hardware and software upgrade costs involved in a migration project.
Even those firms that have been convinced of the benefits of migration are in no rush to do this company-wide. One example is Poundland, which is moving from Windows XP to Windows 7 but won't have completed this in time for the support cut-off.
Speaking last November, Matthew Sparks, IT services manager at the low-cost retail chain, explained that head office systems would be moved over straightaway to Windows 7, as those employees are heavy users of online applications, have more touch points with external networks, and so need a high level of security. "Stores have restricted access, though, so we can take a more phased approach. Not all stores will be migrated by the April cut-off, but some will have made the move," he added.
So what's the likely outcome of the Windows XP support saga? It's clear that by April the 30 percent or so of desktops running Windows XP aren't all going to be switched off for good. Indeed, I'd predict that by the new deadline of July 2015 for cutting off Windows XP antivirus signatures, there will still be at least 10 percent on the ancient Windows OS.
There seems to be only one sensible option here for Microsoft. Scare tactics aren't the answer to making Windows XP users upgrade to newer versions of Windows, so maybe Microsoft needs to think of a way to repackage its next OS in a Windows XP wrapper. It should rebrand Windows 9 as Windows XP 9, and whoever gets the new CEO role needs to get Microsoft's software engineers working on a back-to-basics version for the next OS release, merging the best of Windows XP with the faster performance offered by today's more modern hardware. µ