For all the excitement around the recent launches of Microsoft products such as Surface 2, Xbox One, and Windows 8.1, the more pressing concern in Redmond is around a 12-year-old OS that refuses to die: Windows XP. And as we march inexorably to XP's last hurrah, people continue to wonder whether Microsoft will relent yet again and give XP a new lease on life.
My money is on "no," but there is some interesting data to suggest that doing otherwise might in fact be in Microsoft's—and in Microsoft's customers'—best interest. That is, there are over 400 million Windows XP desktops in the world, if you assume 1.2 billion PCs and believe NetMarketShare's most recent OS usage share stats. (Some estimates place actual PC usage at 1.5 billion PCs, which would raise the number of XP desktops even higher.)
The theory here is that by leaving several hundred million PCs unsupported—and thus unprotected in the event of new zero-day threats and other malware—Microsoft is in essence harming its customers. Obviously, some people feel very strongly about this, and while I'm reminded of the decade-old arguments about Microsoft's dubious decision, at the time, to get into the anti-virus business and actually charge for that service—the firm was fixing a problem caused by its own software—I can see both sides to the debate.
So rather than praise Microsoft for making a tough decision or rake the firm over the coals for not supporting loyal customers that somehow haven't been able to swing an OS update for several years, let's reset for a moment and address what's really happening here. Like it or not, XP is being retired.
"After April 8, 2014, there will be no new security updates, non-security hotfixes, free or paid assisted support options or online technical content updates [for Windows XP or Office 2003]," a Microsoft XP end-of-life site reads. Potential issues include security risks (obviously) but also, ominously (and obviously), a drop-off in new third-party application versions that will work with Windows XP.
Some reports have suggested that Microsoft is backtracking a bit on this deadline and that these changes suggest further steps back from the abyss are likely.
For example, earlier this month Microsoft announced that it would continue to provide its anti-malware solutions—Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), System Center Endpoint Protection, Forefront Client Security, Forefront Endpoint Protection, and Windows Intune—on Windows XP through July 14, 2015, whereas it had previously explained that these solutions—and, as important, their anti-malware signatures—would cease to be provided or updated past April 8, 2014.
This change might seem like a nice gesture to the truly late, but does it really do anything to "help organizations complete their migrations," as Microsoft claims? According to Browsium, this change only represents an extension of anti-virus and anti-malware signature updating, not some veiled way to help extend the usable lifecycle of XP. That is, Microsoft has not promised to continue offering security updates for Windows XP—a situation that would help keep XP users safe—but has rather promised to continue updating what will be an increasingly useless set of security applications. When that zero-day attack happens on April 9, 2014, MSE isn't going to help you.
Likewise, a similar announcement about the Malicious Software Removal Tool (MSRT)—which will now be provided to XP users through July 14, 2015, as well—has generated a similar level of misunderstanding. MSRT does help remove malware that has infected a PC, so it could ostensibly help with zero-day attacks . . . somewhere down the road, and reactively, not proactively. If your security plan for XP includes continuing to use whatever security solutions you're already using and then run MSRT every once in a while to catch the strays, you're going to be out of luck.
These items don't represent backtracking. They're just examples of Microsoft being customer-friendly while not backing away from its core tenet of getting these same customers off XP as soon as possible.
Microsoft's end-of-support site for Windows XP is uncharacteristically harsh about the realities now facing those still running this ancient OS. "If your organization has not started the migration to a modern desktop, you are late," it notes, adding that a typical migration of this kind takes 18 to 32 months depending on the size of the operation. "To ensure you remain on supported versions of Windows and Office, you should begin your planning and application testing immediately."
Right, or two years ago. It seems to me that the issues that have prevented XP migrations thus far haven't really been addressed. Just as problematic, unless something dramatic happens with Windows 8.x this year, it's equally likely that most of those XP holdouts will be moving to Windows 7 whenever they do finally upgrade.
Windows 7 will be heading off into the sunset on January 14, 2020, by the way. I wonder how many millions of PCs will still be running that then-ancient OS by the time this milestone comes around.