Preparing for a brave new world without Windows XP support

With Microsoft support for Windows XP ending in April 2014, Drew Turney learns what the end of an era means for users.
Written by Drew Turney, Contributor

April 8, 2014, will be the beginning of the end for one of the most successful and longest-running PC operating systems in history as Microsoft officially stops supporting Windows XP, first released to hardware vendors on August 24, 2001.

That means it's time to upgrade, and at the risk of causing panic, if you're in charge of a large enterprise PC fleet and you haven't done anything about it yet, you might already be running late. According to Microsoft, "based on historical customer deployment data, the average enterprise deployment can take 18 to 32 months from business case through full deployment". If you haven't started planning yet, do it now — it's better to be behind for a while than broken altogether.

If you're an SME with only a couple of systems, it might just mean buying new computers and spending a weekend copying your data and making sure old applications still work, or investigating alternatives if they don't.

Most large enterprise users, some with hundreds of thousands of machines, are already moving. Nicholas Lee, Fujitsu North America's senior director of end-user services, has reported that 80 percent of the company's clients are "proactively migrating to Windows 7".

The next step to take will depend on your size, but the first port of call should be Microsoft or your OEM reseller. There are already a slew of tools that can test the upwards compatibility of applications and data.

Savings or bust

It's hard to get a CTO (or your small business accountant) to look favourably on a new computer splurge, but, as with most things, it's a cost/benefit analysis. How much is your data worth if it's lost, corrupted, or hijacked?

"I'm hard pressed to see any reason not to migrate to at least Windows 7 for anyone whose infrastructure and data is worth more than a few hundred dollars times the number of desktops," said Jeff Bolden, managing partner of Blue Lotus SIDC, a data conversation and system integration provider. Even if you really need XP, Bolden pointed out, Windows 7 has a virtual build of it.

The other potential cost is your hardware. "If you're using XP, the machine it's on will probably be old, too," said Adrian Case, technical director of IT provider Akita. While new hardware is leaps and bounds better than XP-era kit, Case said you "shouldn't expect much" if you run new operating systems in old boxes. It might even cause a productivity drop.

Microsoft itself has clear advice, and, as you probably expect, it's to buy its newer systems. Windows director of product marketing Jay Paulus told ZDNet that where he might have advised clients a year ago to continue with Windows 7 deployment plans, the world has moved on. But whether you take Microsoft's word with a grain of salt, it is true current Windows 8 users who get a free update to Windows 8.1. That's a cost saving if you upgrade now, because you'll port seamlessly to the latest system for free very soon.

Microsoft is also pushing technology like Secure Boot that blocks untrusted code from loading into the memory as the system boots up, and the company claims Windows 8 and 8.1 are 21 times less likely to be infected by malware.

A new world of content

When a software vendor acts, we all have to follow to come extent. If you swear by very old (or very new) versions of your favourite software, there's a chance you'll be cut out of the post-XP support world altogether. Along with XP, support for Office 2003 is also ending in April, and upcoming versions of software like Office 365 won't run on XP at all.

The biggest marketing push from Microsoft about Windows 8 is its suitability to the mobile and device age.

As Paulus put it, "It's about the same platform on all your devices. I can be on my desktop, notebook, or tablet and I have access to everything. You sign into Office 365 with your Microsoft account, and if you've worked on a document on another device, SkyDrive will ask if you want to pick up where you left off."

For many software developers, Microsoft has long been the target of criticism about using market reach to try to enforce its own long-hated standards.

"In the web development community, the end of Windows XP can't come soon enough," said Chris Carson, president of web developer CampusTours.com. "It's limited to Internet Explorer 8, and unless XP users install other browsers, their web experience will become increasingly limited."

The bottom line is that Windows XP will soon be history. For what to do about it, see where you can go after Windows XP.

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