Windows XP and Windows 8: The worst possible combination for Microsoft

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener: The death of XP and the birth of Windows 8 could create an unexpected opportunity for Android and Apple.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Timing is everything, and the conjunction of the death of Windows XP and the birth of Windows 8 has created an window of opportunity for Microsoft's rivals keen to nibble away at the company's desktop dominance.

Here's why. Windows XP, probably Microsoft's most popular operating system of all time, will soon be laid to rest. As of 8 April 2014 Microsoft will stop providing any patches or bug fixes for XP, which is now a dozen years old.

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Even today (despite much urging from Microsoft that customers should ditch XP in favour of newer versions of its operating system) XP still runs on between a quarter and a third of the world's desktops. Launched way back in October 2001, XP was the most popular desktop operating system in the world until July last year, at which point it was finally overtaken by Windows 7.

Nevertheless, XP has proved to be such a reliable and stable workhorse that many organisations are unwilling to part with it even now, and are unlikely to do so even after Microsoft ends support, even if this may be a risky proposition.

Part of the reason for this reluctance to move is the expense involved; moving to a new operating system can cost millions and take years for even medium-sized organisations. That's hard to justify especially if XP is working just fine, as it is for many organisations.

When the economy was doing better, regular upgrades were grudgingly accepted by firms as a regular cost of doing business: in addition, apart from Windows, there was no realistic alternative save for those few brave souls willing to go down the Linux route.

But the old certainties are being swept away. PCs are no longer the automatic choice for business, thanks to the rise of the tablet. Neither is Windows, with Android desktops and Chromebooks also on an upward trajectory. And, thanks to BYOD, most firms are already used to staff turning up with iPads and Kindle Fire tablets; Microsoft's desktop dominance is already fraying around the edges.  

But, perhaps bigger reason for companies' inertia is their concern about the kind of Windows these companies would be upgrading to. Windows 8, with its new tiled interface, may be making organisations more reluctant to upgrade, not less.

Windows 8 will be 18 months old when XP is laid to rest. It's mature enough (now it's onto its 8.1 iteration) that enterprises should be making their migration plans. And yet it's Windows 7, as the last old-style desktop version of Windows, which will undoubtedly be getting a boost from the XP refugees who move according to the tech chiefs I speak to.

The additional training, the cost of new hardware, and the sheer newness of the user interface in Windows 8 will all be offputting for traditionally cautious tech professionals. For some, the shock of the change from the old desktop view is so great that they might as well look at Android or Chromebooks or iPads when they are looking to upgrade. 

By updating the look and feel of Windows to cope with the threat from tablets, Microsoft may have opened the door to its rivals, not slammed it in their faces — hence the profusion of Android desktops generating excitement at CES this year, for example.

There are excellent reasons why Microsoft has redesigned Windows, and there was never going to be a good time to make such a big change to its UI, although many would argue it could have been handled better. The era of the automatic multimillion dollar upgrade are coming to a close.

For firms that see huge upheaval ahead in terms of user training, hardware and apps, taking the extra step and moving away from Windows — or at least supporting a much more deliberately mixed environment encompassing Windows, Android and iOS — is no longer as terrifying as it once might have been.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

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