Background: Like the undead, Windows XP’s installed base continues to live, even after the Microsoft-published End-Of-Life (EOL) date of 4/8/2014.
What “End of Life” means, is that Microsoft no longer provides free updates, namely security updates, for the operating system.
Unlike other Microsoft operating systems, and due to many factors, Windows XP has a huge installed base.
This article details the XP EOL event, including the good, the bad, and how Microsoft could have handled this better.
1. Why is there still a large XP installed base?
Windows XP was released in 2001, over 13 years ago. There have been 3 subsequent Microsoft desktop operating systems. Why does XP remain so popular?
1.1. A Brief History of Windows
The first part of understanding why XP is so popular is to understand what came before and after XP.
- Early PCs ran DOS (Disk Operating System), a 16-bit command line environment.
- Early versions of Windows ran as a 16-bit program on top of 16-bit DOS. Windows 3.0 / 3.1 helped increase usability, and therefore helped popularize and commoditize the home computer market. Running Windows meant that the average person could launch programs and copy files without being a computer expert, and without learning a bunch of obscure DOS commands. Most computers sold via retail were sold with Windows, helping grow the market dramatically.
- Toward the end of DOS’s lifecycle, Microsoft acquired the Windows NT design team from Digital Equipment Corp (DEC)
- Windows NT was a full 32-bit, clean-build redesign of Windows, based on DOS 5 and Windows 3.1, having a lightweight Posix interface. Windows NT required specific, high-end hardware, and was geared toward “power users” for CAD, engineering, photo / video editing, and similar high-end applications where 16-bit DOS and Windows simply couldn’t fully leverage newer, high-end hardware.
- Windows NT 3.51 introduced “Server” and “Workstation” versions. Server was capable of using more memory and CPU resources, and could also act as a “Domain Controller”, providing centralized authentication for a group of Windows NT and Windows For Workgroups (Windows 3.11) systems.
- Meanwhile, DOS and conventional Windows were replaced with Windows 95, which condensed 16-bit DOS and Windows in to one package, provided a 32-bit operating environment, and provided a greatly simplified interface and management tools.
- Although Windows 95 was more usable, it was buggy and controversial.
- Eventually, with the release of version 4.0, Windows NT adopted the Windows 95 interface, and with the greatly-increased ease of use and simplified management, became one of the most popular server operating systems on the planet in the late 90’s.
- At that time, the desktop was dominated by Windows 98, the successor to 95, because 98 required fewer resources and provided greater flexibility for portable computing as well as gaming. Most consumer software was developed for Windows 98 at that point. For all of its benefits, Windows 98 was both fragile and slow.
- The successor to NT 4.0, Windows 2000, was the first successful attempt to put “NT” on the mainstream corporate and consumer desktop. Windows 2000 provided much better hardware integration, usability, and increased performance over Windows 98.
- The 16-bit era ended with Windows “Millenium Edition” (ME), the successor to Windows 98. ME further isolated itself from DOS, but had higher system requirements. Compared to Windows 2000, there was really no point in maintaining the Windows 95 / 98 / ME lineage, and ME was killed off just 6 months after its release.
- Windows 2000 was greatly criticized because of compatibility problems, generally related to running “mainstream” Windows 98 applications. Poorly-written software had compatibility problems because it used “direct” or proprietary interfaces rather than the Microsoft-provided ones, usually to overcome performance issues, but had the effect of alienating consumers who tried to upgrade to Windows 2000. Developers were not yet writing Windows 2000-compliant software, making Windows 98 a significantly-more popular choice for gaming and older applications.
- In 2001, Microsoft released XP, the successor to Windows 2000. Although XP had its problems, it also had “compatibility” features, allowing users to run their Windows 98 or NT 4.0 software without having to wait for the vendor to provide an update, or in some cases, without having to buy a new version. With its uber-friendly “candybar” interface, and Internet Explorer 6 built-in, XP became the most popular version of Windows ever sold.
- The next version of Windows, Vista, was stuck in development hell until 2005, and wasn’t released until 2007, meaning that the XP mainstream lifecycle lasted 6 years! More than any other Windows version.
- The XP successor, Vista, had significant compatibility and performance issues, and in a mere 2 years, Vista was re-tooled in to Windows 7. A very popular and stable version, Windows 7 was the mainstream version from 2009 through 2012.
- With the release of Windows 8, Microsoft again alienated its user base by taking away the Start menu, and foisting the “Metro” interface upon its user base.
1.2. Windows Version Lifecycle / Units Sold
If we chart the lifecycle (years) of each Windows product, the chart looks like this:
Just as with most mainstream consumer technologies, the home computer adoption curve went through various phases, with the number of units sold via retail growing exponentially with each phase:
- Hobbyist: In the late 70’s, “home computers” were built from kits. Hobbyists bought 100’s of units.
- Enthusiast: In the 80’s, home computer adoption increased, primarily driven by gaming or other special purposes. Very few homes had even one computer. Enthusiasts bought 10,000’s of units.
- Adoption: By the 90’s, 1 in 3 homes had a PC, driven primarily by usability enhancements provided by Windows 3.1 and later, Windows 95. User adoption resulted in the sale of 1,000,000’s of units.
- Mainstream household: By the early 2000’s, most homes had at least one PC, and some had more than one. Household adoption resulted in the sale of 10’s of millions of units.
- Mainstream individual: By the late 2000’s, lower price points and increased demand for “online” lifestyles increases market penetration. Most homes now have more than 1 PC, and some have 1 PC per individual. Individual adoption resulted in the sale of 100’s of millions of units.
XP’s long lifecycle, good hardware support, ease of use, software compatibility, and good support for mobile computing, combined with dropping hardware price points and increased demand for an “online” lifestyle, resulted in 100’s of millions of units sold.
Conversely, Vista (XP’s successor) had a very short lifecycle, meaning that enthusiasts who were early Vista adopters quickly moved on to Windows 7, or late adopters were still on XP, because it continued to meet their needs.
Windows 7 had incredible market penetration, but half the lifecycle.
1.3. Additional Drivers
Here are some additional factors for Windows XP’s large installed base:
- No clear driver. With all of XP’s predecessors, there was a clear driver to “move up” to XP. Usability, compatibility, features, mobile computing, and performance were factors that its predecessors lacked. XP’s successors failed to deliver any compelling reason to upgrade, short of hardware replacement.
- Vista. Sucked. Anyone on the fence about upgrading had a plethora of bugs and negative feedback to chose from, as a direct reason to stay with XP.
- Old Hardware. XP runs on old hardware, but upgrading to a newer version of Windows means significantly-increased hardware requirements, with very little benefit. From a hardware standpoint, the biggest driver to upgrade is the increased use and overhead of rich media. With Adobe de-throned as the de-facto rich media platform, the need for more hardware in support of rich media has actually plateaued. If you have a later-generation XP system, the chances are pretty good that you can play videos, play online games, visit friendbook, and listen to music via a combination of AJAX, HTML5, Java, and Adobe. Via Windows 7’s “compatibility mode”, I use a XP desktop VM for most of my day-to-day personal online needs. To put things in perspective, I’m writing this on the aforementioned XP desktop VM, running with 1 vCPU, and 768 meg (YES, MEG) of RAM. Windows 7 or 8 won’t even boot in under 2 gig with a dual-core CPU, and good luck actually using it.
- Exponential Growth. XP was mainstream at the key time, where demand for an “online” lifestyle significantly increased. Many households went from one PC to multiple PCs in a very short span of time, all during the XP era. More XP units shipped means more installed XP units still in service.
- Compliance Penalty. Install XP, use XP. Install a newer Windows, and you face a maze of feature sets, license options, validation prompts, online validation, and if you change the hardware, you might even be forced to re-license Windows. In an attempt to prevent piracy, Microsoft has alienated its Vista / 7 /8 user base. XP came in two flavors: Pro and Home, with very little difference between the two, and no subsequent requirements.
- Training Penalty. Assuming a basic competency, either Grandma or Suzy Secretary could sit down in front of any version of Windows, from 95 up to and including XP, and “just use” it — no training required. Going from XP to Vista incurs a certain training penalty, because the user interface and functionality is significantly changed. Likewise for Windows 7, and again, there is a second, significant quantum training gap between Windows 7 and 8. People whose Grandma are using Windows Vista or worse, Windows 8, are not thrilled about those weekend phone calls about “how do I do such and such”. Corporations are not thrilled about having to re-train their technicians nor their user base. People like me, who support both, are thrilled about neither!
By some estimates, 23% of all desktops, as of this writing, as of the passing of the XP EOL date, run Windows XP!
My view of the world is that slamming the door on XP users means risking 23% market share.
2. End of Life
What does “End of Life” (EOL) mean? Let’s dig in to this a little bit…
At 5 years after release, Microsoft shifts each operating system from “Mainstream” to “Extended Support”, and typically, Extended Support ends 10 years after release. Due to its popularity, Microsoft’s “End of Life” or “End of General Support” for XP was extended to 2014, having shifted to Extended Support in 2006.
2.2. Impact – “The Bad”
- No “free” support from Microsoft. Any support for XP would be pay for play.
- No security updates are being written and released. Rumor has it that due to the large installed base, for example, within ATMs, SAN arrays, and other embedded environments, Microsoft will continue to WRITE security updates for XP, but will only RELEASE them to “post-extended support” paid customers.
ZDNet published a hack that allows XP to continue to receive patches based on “POSReady”, an embedded version of XP.
- No net-new mainstream compatibility. You want to run that new “Runs on Windows” certified Microsoft game or app? Chances are, that it won’t run on XP. Additionally, commercial 3rd-party development will start to dramatically exclude XP support.
2.3. The Reality – “The Good”
- Lack of negative attention. As XP declines, attackers will no longer target the platform. This means that the net-new number of XP-related vulnerabilities per month will start to significantly drop.
- 3rd-party opportunities. The large installed base, coupled with lack of Microsoft support creates a perfect opportunity for 3rd-party security vendors such as McAfee, Trend, and Symantec to step in. With minimal or perhaps no cost, you will be able to purchase 3rd-party protection as good or better than that provided by Microsoft.
- Huge software library. Because of its long lifespan and huge installed base, hundreds of thousands of games and applications were written to run on XP, most of which are still available inexpensively, or as open source.
- Increased Stability. This one is counter-intuitive, but here goes the explanation: Without Microsoft mucking about with the XP code every month (patch Tuesdays), the behavior and stability of XP will ultimately benefit.
- No cloud dependence. XP and all of its applications run local. “Time bombing” an application is illegal, meaning, if you legally purchased and installed a copy of XYZ software from 2004, you can continue to legally, locally run that software forever. With modern applications, including Office 365, you are paying a subscription fee — if you stop paying, you lose your rights to the application. I have a fully-licensed copy of MS Office 2003 that I use on my XP VM. My Office 2003 will continue to run forever.
- Active Open Source / Managed Code development. There are many active projects that either explicitly support XP (because of its huge installed base), or run as managed code in either Java or Dot Net, that will run on XP. Again, for example, (in addition to MS Office) I use LibreOffice on my XP VM, which runs in Java. LibreOffice doesn’t care about the host OS.
- Steam. Valve’s Steam platform is 32-bit and runs on XP, as does the “Source” engine used by all of Valve’s games. Steam, as a digital distribution platform, has a wide variety of games, many of which either run on XP today, or new games that are 32-bit and won’t necessarily exclude XP.
3. Microsoft’s XP EOL Message
Fundamentally, a current XP user is a POTENTIAL FUTURE customer. Whether they buy Microsoft or some other brand largely depends on how they are treated — they will vote with their dollars.
On 4/8 (no joke) I got the following pop-up on my trusty XP VM:
So let’s assume one of three scenarios:
- I’m an “ignorance is bliss” consumer with my circa-2008 (YEP, you could buy NEW PCs with WinXP in 2008) computer, and I get this message. Uh…. WHAT? Today is April 8, 2014…. Why didn’t I get this pop-up a month ago, or a year ago?
- I’m a professional who chooses to continue to run XP, and I get this message. My first thought is, “you are all a bunch of idiots”. (Yep, that WAS my first thought)
- I’m a corporate user, and I get this message. I will immediately call the IT department to let them know that my PC is at risk! THANK YOU, Microsoft, for generating a 100 phone calls to the help desk.
Clicking on the link takes you here:
In case Microsoft drops this at some point, here is the PDF:
3.1. Analysis of the Microsoft “Support Has Ended” Page
As I read the “Support Has Ended” page, as a Microsoft customer (or potential customer), here is the message I get…
- What is XP End of Support?
- This is straightforward. I think the client base understands that you can’t support every piece of hardware / software forever.
- XP / IE8 is directly at risk. This is a scare tactic.
- How do I stay Protected?
- Upgrade your current PC. And I quote, “Very few older computers are able to run Windows 8.1“, meaning, “your hardware probably sucks, and you can’t run what we call ‘the correct’ Windows“. This is a blatant slap in the face to any current Windows XP customer. What it really says is this: “You know all those hard-earned dollars you spent on buying a Microsoft ™ Windows ™ computer? Yeah…. well…. screw you.“
- Get a New PC. And…. there it is. Here is the truthspeak ™ version: “Windows 8 sucks so bad that we screwed our hardware partners, and we are using the XP EOL event in a thinly-veiled attempt to sell hardware.” You are NOT a loyal customer. You are not a VALUED customer. You should go spend money. RIGHT NOW.
- What do I get with Windows 8.1? Quote: “Windows 8.1 makes it easy to do all the things you’re used to doing with Windows XP while opening up a whole new world of possibilities for you to explore and enjoy.” Let’s analyze this further:
- The familiar desktop. (XP and Win 8.1) Um… NOPE! XP has a START button! This is a blatant fail, and whoever wrote it should go start writing presidential speeches.
- Works with a mouse and keyboard. (XP and Win 8.1) Last time I checked, this is the definition of productivity. Linux runs with “Mouse and Keyboard”. Chromebook runs with “Mouse and Keyboard”. 99% of personal computers on the planet “works with mouse and keyboard”. All XP machines “works with mouse and keyboard”.
- Works with Word, Excel, Outlook, and other familiar programs. (XP and Win 8.1) Excellent! No compelling reason to upgrade, then!
- Built for touch PCs and tablets. (8.1 only) XP Tablet Edition was released in 2002. People who wanted “touch” bought “touch” 12 years ago. In addition, show me ONE application where touch is more effective than a mouse. Many people implemented Media PCs running XP Media Center edition, that provided a touch-friendly interface with large UI elements and smooth scrolling.
- Apps from the Windows Store. (8.1 only) The “Windows store” ecosystem is young, and quite frankly, there’s nothing but crap or exploit-ware out there. Android and Chrome both have a much more robust and mature app ecosystem, and I can get all the Android / Chrome apps on Windows XP. Meanwhile, XP has its own app store, called “the internet”, with hundreds of thousands of games and apps available for free or low cost.
- Mail, People, and other built-in apps. (8.1 only) I don’t even know what this is. Are you saying I can’t e-mail people? I e-mail people on XP every day. “Mail” and “People” I assume, are specific apps, but they have no compelling use-case over Google or Yahoo.
- Keep your settings and apps on all your PCs and devices. (8.1 only) Both Chrome and Firefox do this already. No one in their right mind would run Internet Exploder.
- Bing smart search to find things across the web, apps, and your PC. (8.1 only) Bing runs on XP. (8.1 only) OH! You meant, “running bing on my computer“, not “go to bing.com in my CHROME browser“. Well…. OK. BUT… considering that “BING” has probably 1M lines of code, I can’t say that NOT running hacker-bait on my XP machine is an “advantage” of 8.1 over XP. Honestly? I’m not losing anything there!
- Start screen with live updates. (8.1 only) I’m just tempted to put an exclamation point on this one: Start screen with live updates!! XP start screen doesn’t bleed potentially-confidential information. XP start screen was designed to be secure. XP start screen was designed to be low-power, low-use. WOW, 8.1, you are starting to sound desperate.
- Faster startup times. (8.1 only) Faster… “I don’t think that word means what you think it means” (-Inigo Montoya, from “Princess Bride”) Given ‘x’ hardware, XP will load nearly instantly compared to Win 8.1. The “8.1 boots faster” argument is only valid against Windows “the dog” Vista, and Windows “slow but steady” 7. XP is a much smaller operating system, designed to run well on much older hardware. To put things in perspective, my XP virtual machine boots faster than most Windows 8 laptops.
So let’s summarize Microsoft’s message:
- You are at risk!
- You should go spend money!
- You will get a hodge-podge of ambiguous features, nothing compelling.
4. A Superior Approach
If I had the job, here is how I would have handled Microsoft’s messaging to its XP installed base:
As stated, you’re running XP because you believed in Microsoft at some point, and we want to keep you as a loyal customer.
4.1. Positive Messages:
- We’ll give you a $100 credit toward a new hardware purchase.
Message: We’re in this together. We’re willing to invest in new hardware WITH YOU.
- We will open-source Windows XP. We can’t afford to support it, but the open-source community can crowd-source the effort, and possibly build a superior product! We hope you consider Microsoft products and services when making future purchases. Here’s a $20 coupon.
Message: It’s too expensive to maintain, but we continue to value those who supported us.
- We’ve aligned the release of Windows 999 with XP EOL. Windows 999 is a low-cost alternative to XP that includes modern technologies while supporting older hardware. Click here to upgrade!
Message: For a minimal investment, you can jump to a modern, supported platform. We value our customers and respect the dollars spent on a previous hardware investment.
The thesis of these approaches is that there are viable ways to reflect the value of current Microsoft XP customers, while creating a path to ensure that they are future Microsoft customers.
- If you are technically-competent, install Debian with LXDE desktop. Install Firefox and LibreOffice. Never look back.
- If you are NOT technically competent, buy a Mac. Mac’s don’t bite. Your grandson will have no clue how to help you, but you probably won’t need his help.
- If you are an uber-nerd, buy a refurb PC with Windows 7 and P2V (“Physical 2 Virtual”) your XP machine as a VM running in Win 7.
- Windows 8 sucks. Microsoft will never say “hey… sorry about that! Windows 8 sucks!“. Instead, they will simply stop talking about it. Don’t buy in to Windows 8, because it sucks. How many announcements have you heard about Vista lately? Vista EOL? NON-EVENT. Vista should have been called “Vistake”, just like Windows 8 should be called “Windows mist8k” (OK – that was a stretch).
- XP EOL is like Y2K. All hype, no impact. Many people, including myself, worked VERY hard to ensure that Y2K was a non-event — I question what effort has been put toward ensuring XP EOL is a non-event.
- There is a specific set of use-cases for continuing to use XP.
- Microsoft’s messaging around XP EOL is arrogant and entitled. A better approach is to value current Microsoft customers (the existing installed XP user base).
- XP Zombie. Having surpassed its expiration date, XP is officially “undead”! I hope XP lives forever!