Can Windows 8 finally vanquish the ghosts of XP and Vista?

These days, Microsoft is haunted by two ghosts. Windows Vista has practically vanished, but Windows XP is still hanging around on stage, interfering with Microsoft's careful messaging. Can Windows 8 finally lay XP to rest?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

If you’re a Windows watcher, circle this date on your calendar: April 10, 2012.

That’s the date when mainstream support for Windows Vista officially ends. And it cannot come soon enough for Microsoft, whose public image was badly damaged by the massively unliked Vista. If the rumors about a possible Windows 8 release in April 2012 are true, it will be an almost perfect changing of the guard.

But vanquishing the ghost of Windows Vista is the easy challenge for Microsoft. Windows XP is still hanging around on stage, bumping into scenery and generally interfering with Microsoft’s careful messaging about all the cool and useful stuff it’s doing today.

I thought about that date as I watched the keynote addresses from this week’s Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Los Angeles. Some of the people I follow on Twitter were disappointed that Microsoft didn’t divulge more details about Windows 8 or even publicly release a platform preview.

That shouldn’t have been surprising. WPC is, after all, a show for partners who are out there selling Microsoft products every day. Yes, they want to know what’s coming up, but they’re far more interested in the present. And for their (mostly business) customers, there are only two Windows choices these days: the 10-year-old XP and the still-new Windows 7. It’s almost like Vista never happened.

Consider the words of Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner, who told a packed audience, “Windows XP, Office 2003, and Internet Explorer 6 deserve a standing ovation. We love those products.” As Turner noted, those products made Microsoft and its partners a lot of money. After a pause for dramatic effect, he added, “But they're dead."

Oh dear. I guess that means 300 million PCs still powered by Windows XP are zombies, and we all know how hard those are to kill. Which might explain why Corporate Vice President Tami Reller was practically pleading with partners to help them migrate customers away from XP "to a modern OS."

That’s happening, slowly. XP has lost roughly 10 percent of its share over the past year and should be below the 50% mark by the time Vista support ends next year.

But the paradox for Microsoft is that businesses—notoriously conservative and slow to adopt new technology—are most likely to embrace Windows 7 when it’s old news. When it comes to Windows, businesses like being on the last version, not the current one. When Windows 8 is released, it will instantly make Windows 7 the safe choice for businesses. Not rational, I know, but that’s how the psychology works.

More than anything else, Microsoft is looking forward to shipping Windows 8 so it can finally get back on a regular cadence with its operating system releases: the current one for consumers and early-adopter businesses, the previous one for conservative businesses and cheapskate consumers. With Vista finally out of the mix, that proposition will finally make sense again.

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