Mainstream support ran out for
Windows 2000 Professional at the beginning of last month. So the clock must be ticking for Windows XP
Professional, which shipped a mere 20 months later, right? Nope.
Windows XP's mainstream support will last much longer under a clause in Microsoft's current support lifecycle policy. Mainstream support lasts for five years, or two years beyond the release of the latest version, whichever is longer. XP's mainstream support is currently slated to run until Dec. 31, 2006—just about when Windows Longhorn is supposed to ship. That translates to a two-year grace period on Windows XP mainstream support until very late in 2008.
Not all support cuts off at that
date; that's just when the extended phase begins. New feature requests won't be considered after 2008, but you're still entitled to new security patches until late 2013. So Windows XP is officially going to be around awhile, even if Longhorn doesn't miss more deadlines.
Faced with the long lead time to Longhorn, Microsoft is under pressure to keep the aging Windows XP operating system improving or it'll leave a crack for eager competitors to slip through. It's very similar to the situation the company faced with SQL Server 2000 during the long wait for Yukon. To keep SQL Server 2000 fresh, Microsoft dribbled out new features—items like Reporting Services and Notification Services that added valuable functionality, even if they weren't the full-featured versions that would appear in Yukon.
The approach has been the same on the Windows client side, and all indications are that the trend will continue. Windows XP Service Pack 2 was the most obvious example, with its Windows Firewall, new version of Internet Explorer, general security overhaul and Group Policy enhancements, among other things.
Plenty of things are working their way back into the Windows XP code-base from the Longhorn development team as optional downloads. Other items originally planned for Longhorn that Microsoft later decided to pull into Windows XP include the Avalon
presentation subsystem, the Indigo communications subsystem and IE 7.0, with its further security enhancements and tabbed browsing. There's even talk of the WinFS storage subsystem, if it actually ships, being made available
for Windows XP.
With the subsystems, given the support horizon for Windows XP, Microsoft has little choice. Windows XP is going to have a larger installed base than Longhorn for years. Developers won't target the new technologies for a tiny portion of the installed base.
Search is another area of focus for Longhorn that Microsoft is bringing to XP. MSN Desktop Search adds a lot of the kinds of functionality promised for Longhorn. (Competitive downloads from Google and Yahoo! provide great searching of Windows systems right now, too.)
There are places that Longhorn will go where Windows XP can't follow. The Aero interfaces and the new folder structure aren't likely candidates for emulation. Other exclusive end-user features will probably emerge in the Beta 1 and Beta 2 stages of Longhorn testing. As with SQL Server 2005, Longhorn should also make major strides in the fundamentals (See our interview with Jim Allchin on p. 34) that the older products can't touch.
Administrators who ripped out their Windows 2000 Professional infrastructures the day Windows XP came out will be doing the same when Longhorn arrives. But if you keep current with your Windows XP updates, your users will wind up with a functionally much-improved operating
system over the gold code version—practically a Longhorn Lite. When Longhorn does finally roll off the production lines, you can take your sweet time to deploy it.
Even if your internal PC replacement schedule calls for new PCs this year, consider this: Windows XP Professional loaded on new PCs bought this year could ride out an entire three-year lifecycle on mainstream support.
Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.