In-Depth

So You’ve Decided to Skip Vista ...

You’re not alone -- Microsoft's latest operating system still isn't making much headway in terms of enterprise adoption. Here's what you need to know about keeping XP alive.

Other than furniture and maybe a few preservative-filled snack foods, not much of anything has a shelf life of 10 years anymore. A 10-year-old TV? It's a low-definition box of tubes. A 10-year-old stereo? It probably has a cassette player, and it definitely doesn't have an iPod docking station. A car from a decade ago? It might still be running, but it's likely to have much more than 100,000 miles on it and be headed for either a cheap used car lot or a junkyard.

It's not that those things don't work anymore -- it's just that either wear and tear or advancements in technology have made them undesirable, if not obsolete. It's odd, then, that Windows XP, a signature product in what is supposed to be one of the fastest-paced, most innovative markets -- enterprise technology -- might very well last a decade. This, despite the fact that its successor, Windows Vista, has been out for almost two years.

Microsoft released XP seven years ago this month, and the operating system is still going strong. So strong, in fact, that its popularity is cannibalizing adoption of its main competitor, Vista. Nowhere are XP's strengths and Vista's weaknesses more apparent than in the enterprise, where, at press time, XP's market-share number was still 87 percent, according to Forrester Research Inc., while Vista's sat at less than 10 percent.

To put XP's run in perspective, consider that it came out on Oct. 25, 2001 -- two days after Apple Inc. launched the first iPod. But while the original iPod looks a bit clunky next to its successors -- and not many users would downgrade from, say, an iPod Touch to the 2001 offering -- XP is still the operating system of choice for enterprise IT departments, and some IT managers are actively choosing it over Vista. In August, InfoWorld and Devil Mountain Software Inc. calculated that 35 percent of all enterprise machines that shipped with Vista wound up being "downgraded" to XP.

Other IT departments still using XP simply haven't bought new PCs and won't for a while in a flagging economy. What this all adds up to is an extended lifespan for XP -- one that could, in some IT departments, last a solid decade. Sure, not a lot of companies jumped right to XP in 2001, but even those that signed on in 2004 or 2005 will be giving XP quite a ride if they plan to make it last until Windows 7 arrives, currently due in late 2009 or early 2010.

"A decade is a long time to be using [XP]," says Paul DeGroot, senior analyst with Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash. "A lot of companies won't replace XP until 2011. It's not as though customers have been deliberately hanging on to this old fossil of an operating system. They didn't have a choice for six years, and then they got a choice that didn't turn out to be very compelling."

The reasons for Vista's lack of momentum are legion and well-documented -- hassles with application compatibility and PC memory requirements top the list. But, although Microsoft and third-party vendors have alleviated a lot of Vista's problems, some enterprises have simply decided to skip the OS altogether. And that means either looking at alternatives such as open source and the Mac OS, or, more likely, keeping XP up and running until Windows 7 comes out.

Living at the Mercy of Microsoft
One reason XP is still racking up sales is that it's not hard to get. Microsoft officially stopped selling it on most PCs at the end of June, but the company is offering downgrade licenses that let IT departments move back to XP, even with volume licensing agreements.

Those companies with Software Assurance (SA) subscriptions can downgrade at no extra cost, experts say. For those not on SA, Microsoft is allowing OEMs to offer free downgrades to XP from Vista Business and Vista Ultimate, and major OEMs such as Dell Inc., Fujitsu Ltd., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Lenovo have embraced that offer. Of course, that might not always be the case -- and therein lies one of the potential, if unlikely, pitfalls of sticking with XP.

"The big question is, how tightly is Microsoft going to tie the OEMs' hands with regard to OEM downgrade rights?" says Scott Braden, licensing expert and vice president of Microsoft services at Holland, Mich.-based consulting firm NET(net) Inc. If Microsoft really wanted to stem XP's growth, it could do so, Braden says, by pressuring OEMs to curb downgrade programs or ceasing its downgrade-license program.

If Microsoft moved in that direction, companies would have a very hard time completing hardware upgrades and still running XP. Braden, however, doesn't see Microsoft playing hardball with its customers given the company's historical battles with antitrust watchdogs in the United States and Europe.

"I think Microsoft is approaching it the right way with this new Vista ad campaign," Braden says, referring to Microsoft's new multimedia effort to plug Vista to consumers and businesses. "They realize that they have a messaging problem. If they play carrot and stick games and use more stick than carrot, they're going to end up back in court again."

Support is another issue that might keep some XP fans up at night. Microsoft could, conceivably, stop or slow its support for XP in order to push customers to Vista.

"The killer blow is Microsoft patching," says Melih Abdulhayoglu, CEO and chief security architect at Comodo Group Inc., a Jersey City, N.J.-based vendor of authentication and security applications that's still using XP. "If Microsoft said today, 'Next month, we're not going to patch XP anymore,' that would leave us no alternative but to move to Vista."

However, Microsoft released Service Pack 3 (SP3) for XP in April and is unlikely, experts say, to stop supporting an operating system that still dominates in market share. "If I had to make a wild guess, [Microsoft] probably wouldn't cut off [XP support] until Windows 7 SP1 comes out," says Derek Torres, a Paris-based author who has written and co-written several books on Windows XP and Windows Vista, including "The Unofficial Guide to Windows Vista" (Wiley, 2007).

Torres also notes that should Vista ultimately overtake XP in terms of popularity, Microsoft is still likely to carry support for the older OS for a few more years. "In 2008, they just now stopped supporting [Windows] Me," he says.

The other parties that could play a major role in moving users to Vista -- and hampering XP's survival -- are third-party vendors. If they begin writing their applications for Vista and not XP, users of the older OS will struggle to stay current. But, again, that seems unlikely given XP's market dominance, and Abdulhayoglu says that his company hasn't even thought about ditching XP development.

"Nobody is going to ignore such a huge market," he says. "We only recently stopped supporting [Windows] 9x; we only stopped writing for it in 2007. When are we going to stop writing for XP? I can't see it in the next few years."

In fact, if anything, some third parties are wondering whether they'll support Vista at all. "They're also having the same conversation that IT people are having: 'Do I want to port my code to Vista, or do I want to wait for Windows 7?'" says Kevin Murphy, CTO of Network Engines Inc. (NEI), a Canton, Mass.-based maker of appliance technology.

The Foggy Road Ahead
So, if licensing and support aren't likely to be major issues for XP prior to Windows 7's arrival, what types of problems could IT departments encounter by skipping Vista? That question is difficult to answer definitively right now.

For some companies, Vista offers functionality that they can't -- or would rather not -- do without. "The big features that I really liked out of Vista were the searching capabilities, which are very powerful for us," says Scott Knowles, director of technology and education at Kinex Medical Co. LLC in Waukesha, Wis. "We deal with hundreds of thousands of patient records, and that's a nice thing to have."

Another nice thing to have for many IT professionals is Vista's built-in security, which observers agree is much better than that of XP -- even if it can sometimes be hard to manage.

"For all of its flaws, you don't really hear about it being hacked a whole lot," Torres says. But Microsoft has, over time, fixed most of the many security problems that dogged XP for years. "Complaints are dying down about XP," Torres notes.

Nevertheless, XP could become more vulnerable the longer it remains the enterprise's OS of choice.

"Any product that sits around for that long, the vector of attack is just going to continue to grow," Murphy says. "People are using things in new ways -- there's more mobility with Web 2.0. All that stuff is increasing the number of people who are going to try to attack XP. If I keep throwing balls at the target, I'm eventually going to hit the target."

DeGroot agrees, although he notes that Microsoft isn't likely to let security problems plague XP. "I couldn't say there was no security risk [in sticking with XP]," he says. "It's possible that there is some. Presumably we're talking about a security risk that was present in both Vista and XP, and Microsoft might move faster to fix it in Vista." However, he notes, that's "not likely" given XP's near-90 percent market share.

And Torres adds that while Vista might have better built-in security, companies learned how to secure XP long ago and generally don't need Vista's native protection. "Every company runs a bidirectional firewall," he says.

Still, unforeseen security risks could linger for companies that don't move to Vista, as could another unforeseen factor -- technology advancements from Microsoft. In recent years, Microsoft has merged "back-office" functions with Microsoft Office through Microsoft Office SharePoint Server. SharePoint is now a billion-dollar business for Microsoft and has proven popular for its ability to expose back-office data to Office 2007 applications.

While SharePoint's more useful data-merging capabilities do largely require Office 2007 to function, they don't require Vista. And Office 2007 runs just fine with XP, users say. "We've seen Office 2007 do great under XP," says John Bowden, CIO at Clearfield, Utah-based LifeTime Products Inc. Bowden's company is sticking with XP and is unlikely to move to Vista, he says.

Of course, all of that could change if Microsoft decides to require Vista for certain SharePoint capabilities. And that's another risk of sticking with XP-missing out on forthcoming Microsoft innovation that could conceivably be Vista-only.

"Microsoft always pitches the tightening integration between Windows, Office and the former BackOffice," says NET(net) Inc.'s Braden. "You'd miss out on that future functionality."

It's hard, however, to say exactly what that future functionality might be. "The problem is Microsoft has become so tight about sharing the roadmaps," Braden continues. "You can have Dell come in and give you a hardware roadmap as far out as Intel is willing to plan. Microsoft won't do that."

By the same token, while SharePoint functionality could someday make staying with XP a disadvantage, Software as a Service -- otherwise known as cloud computing -- could render the OS debate moot.

Murphy notes that Microsoft requiring Vista for future SharePoint functionality could lead to something of a customer revolt. "If they said you couldn't do x and y unless you had Vista -- as a CTO, I'm going to sit there and say, 'That's not the best architectural implementation that you want to have.'"

Nevertheless, running 10-year-old XP technology in 2011 could put some companies behind the innovation curve. Whether it will or not remains to be seen.

Betting It All on Windows 7
Unless companies move to the Mac or an open source platform, there's one thing they almost assuredly won't be doing if they take a pass on Vista -- and that's skipping Windows 7. Given speculation that Windows 7 could very well be based on Vista technology, the jump from XP might end up being a significant one.

"It's going to be a very, very significant shift going from XP to Windows 7," Murphy says. "That's going to be a gigantic step. I think people should take this time to begin the migration process."

That leap is one of the reasons why Kinex Medical's Knowles chose to move his company to Vista -- to have a more incremental climb up the OS ladder. "Ultimately you're going to upgrade anyway," Knowles says. "If you're going to upgrade, I tend to think that you can make some of the smaller steps early and it seems to go a little smoother."

But XP's continued market domination and the relatively speedy arrival of Windows 7 could mean that lots of companies will be jumping straight from XP to the new OS. And if that's the case, Microsoft would likely need to help expedite that process.

"We'll have to see how the migration tools turn out," Bowden says. "I'm not sure what they're going to provide, but [we're] not the only company in that situation."

Directions on Microsoft's DeGroot contends that the jump from XP to Windows 7 might not be so high after all. "I'd actually argue it's a smaller jump," he says. "Probably the biggest problem with Vista in terms of standardizing it for many enterprises is the fact that it won't run on a lot of older hardware. The notion of a company-wide rollout of an OS that doesn't run on 40 percent of your machines is a really daunting idea."

DeGroot contends Microsoft learned its lesson from Vista, which is it can't leap significantly ahead on the hardware requirements and expect everybody in business to go out and buy new hardware.

"There's a very strong probability that the hardware requirements for Windows 7 will not be higher than those for Vista," DeGroot continues. "By 2011, the oldest machines will be Vista-era machines. Even if you're looking at a five-year hardware-refresh cycle, by the time you get around to deploying Windows 7 you'll have very few pieces of hardware that can't run it."

Beyond that, Murphy says, virtualization technology should help with the XP-to-Windows 7 leap. "Windows 7 will do a lot of capitalization on virtualization," he says. "If you can take your XP legacy apps, build virtual machines around those and use them in Windows 7, it's a little bit of a safety net."

The 10-Year OS
While the immediate risks of sticking with XP seem manageable, it's the unknown -- support issues, third-party apps, potential Vista-only innovation -- that might concern IT professionals who are keeping their companies on XP. Still, none of those factors is likely to drive IT departments running scared from XP into the open arms of Vista.

And with Windows 7 possibly on the way within a couple of years, XP might not have to live that much longer. "We should be seeing Windows 7 betas early in 2009 if [Microsoft is] going to ship it in 2010," DeGroot says. "You should be evaluating Windows 7. Save yourself the grief -- don't work on a deployment strategy for Vista. You're barely a year away from Windows 7."

In all likelihood, a large percentage of IT departments won't need any convincing on that point. "XP is a great platform -- we love XP," Abdulhayoglu says. "As long as [Microsoft] keeps it up-to-date, there's no vulnerability that I know of that really rules it out."

Well, not right now, anyway. But 10 years is a long time for anything to last these days.

More Information

Vista: Still Heir to the Throne?
While much of the buzz about Windows Vista in the trade press and among analysts has been negative, a few numbers have popped up that seem to support the beleaguered operating system.

Windows XP has proven to be an unrelentingly popular operating system, but it wasn't always the star of the Windows show. Computerworld in August compiled numbers that showed that XP was running only 6.6 percent of corporate PCs in the United States and Canada in September 2003, almost two years after its October 2001 release. Vista, on the other hand, had an 8.8 percent worldwide enterprise market share at the end of June -- 19 months after its November 2006 release to enterprises -- according to Forrester Research Inc.

Of course, those comparisons aren't strictly apples-to-apples. For starters, the 2003 XP market share is a North American figure, while the Vista number is a worldwide percentage. Beyond that, the XP number originally came from AssetMatrix, a company Microsoft later bought.

Most notably, however, and perhaps most importantly, XP is much older now than its predecessor and primary competitor, Windows 2000, was in 2003. Windows 2000 debuted in February 2000 and was therefore not quite four years old in late 2003 when XP had only 6.6 percent market share. By comparison, XP will turn seven this month -- and, unless drastic changes happen before press time, Vista will still have less than 10 percent of the enterprise market.

In short, XP's market share is unprecedented for an OS of its advanced age.

"XP is the most mature operating system that has ever had 90 percent penetration in business," says Paul DeGroot, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash. "We're now talking about a system that's seven years old, and is still used by a majority of businesses."

That might not be the case forever, though. Forrester, in an August report, stated that Vista was gaining a foothold in the enterprise, and argued: "IT operations folks are at a critical inflection point and should deploy Windows Vista to: 1) stay current with Microsoft's and independent software vendors' support lifecycles; 2) help minimize today's security, management and productivity challenges; and 3) better position your business to eventually embrace 'Windows 7.'"

-L.P.

 

If Not Windows 7, Then What?
Microsoft is already making noise about Windows 7, the successor to Windows Vista due in late 2009 or early 2010. And while most IT departments that skip Vista will likely move from Windows XP straight to Windows 7, others are considering ditching Microsoft altogether.

"Because of the fiasco with Vista -- and what a debacle that OS was -- we're probably not going to wait for another cycle of Microsoft products," says one IT professional, who communicated via e-mail and asked not to be identified. "We're looking at open source and the Mac as potential future suitors."

He's not alone. While Apple Inc.'s Mac operating system still hasn't dented the Microsoft enterprise juggernaut, it is making inroads with businesses. Numbers from Forrester Research Inc. released in July show the Mac's progression: From October 2007 through June 2008, enterprise market share for the Mac OS grew from 3.6 percent to 4.5 percent.

Linux had less penetration and less potential for penetration, the Forrester report concluded. So, while Vista might still take over for XP and Windows 7 looks like a sure thing to replace both its predecessors, Microsoft isn't quite as much of an enterprise OS juggernaut as it used to be.

-L.P.

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