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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Reader Comments:

Tue, Oct 28, 2008 E Jordan

I believe a similar quantum changes to the required hardware environment significantly hurt IBM. The dropping of the 5.25" floppy and the memory requirements of OS2 either significantly impacted or killed products.

Mon, Oct 27, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous

To be fair, Windows XP RTM was a piece of trash that required almost a complete rewrite of the OS to fix things that were way out of whack. Compatability was huge, but more importantly were issues using USB devices. I can remember prefering firewire at the time becuase there were few issues with such devices. Oh well.

Thu, Oct 16, 2008 Marc Wagner Bloomington, IN

You said ...

"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."

Then you proceeded to argue that these statistics were not reliable because the XP figures were North American ONLY.

Well, considering that the 'conventional wisdom' is that US customers MORE LIKELY to find themselves 'locked in' to MS products than the rest of the world -- the argument would suggest that the North American ONLY figures might actually be even higher -- and certainly not lower.

In short, all of the FUD about Vista is based upon perceptions long since addressed. Did MS make mistakes in rolling out Vista? No doubt about it! Does this mark the demise of Windows in favor of Linux or MacOSX in the enterprise? Not a chance.

Wed, Oct 15, 2008 Michael Butterworth Oxford, England

Personally, I get on well with Vista at home. At business, we have mostly new machines that came with Vista Business, but we have had to downgrade them to XP because one of our key processes goes made when it is installed and then gets worse when you try and use it. We have however rolled out Office 2007 and the same process has issues with that. Our LOB app is currently not Vista compatable, however we are just finishing off the new version and that will work fine. Lastly our CAD package will run on Vista, however the vendor cannot understand why it runs so slow, even after they rewrote it for Vista compatablility the same version runs great on XP! Our current plan is to move our production team onto Windows Server 2008 Terminal services and thin client with touch screens, niether XP or Vista!

Mon, Oct 13, 2008 Mike Modesto CA

Vista is suffering from a very slow adoption, and it has nothing to do with quality - the biggest concern I see from clients is having WGA inflicted on them, even in volume licensing arrangements. I had a client just this morning that had their entire network go down because their 2008 deployment went long, and the "grace" period on their volume activation expired before they reached the minimum number of systems installed. People know how unreliable the Genuine Disadvantage is, and as long as MS expects businesses to suffer through it, they are going to continue turning elsewhere. Several of my clients are currently looking at hardware refreshes, and their choices are to repurchase XP even though they will wipe and dispose of their existing systems, upgrade to Vista and live with WGA, or go Linux – at least one has already decided to roll over 65 desktops to Linux and OpenOffice, and we have a pilot deployment in place. If Microsoft continues down this road, they will simply make Linux a viable option for more and more businesses, even with the inherently higher support costs.

Mon, Oct 13, 2008 John Newcastle, WY

Working for the State of Wyoming, Vista is not a viable option. There are specific apps that we use that will not work correctly with Vista. Also, with the administrator rights for vista it makes our jobs as system administrators that much more difficult to manage all the PC's that we have at our specific sites. I don't see the department converting over anytime soon.

Fri, Oct 3, 2008 Becky Nagel Editor, Redmondmag.com

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the published version of this story, there was some ambiguity regarding the status of downgrade rights for Microsoft customers. Redmond magazine would like to clarify that all Microsoft Volume Licensing customers have downgrade rights.

Fri, Oct 3, 2008 Mark United Nations

I've seen some people running old apps, like foxpro and filemaker pro that cant run Vista. Old Hardware is also a problem, but other than that...

I upgraded the whole 6-12th floors of the UN building to Vista Business, and solved the few problems that occured. 750 PC's!

I even found a registry tweak, so they could run dreams (which require Aero). Many people are from far away lands, and have dreams of their homeland, as their background. One guy went home to Japan and made a 900 meg HD dream of his backyard, awesome! One hour of his parents Japanese garden with a 15 min rain shower, looping.

Fri, Oct 3, 2008 Mark Anonymous

I even modify the start button with the UN logo. You'd never know it was Vista. Like the mojaveexperiment. I have to admit, sometimes i dont tell noobs its Vista. Of course, anyone who knows computers well, would know its Vista Bus SP1 with dreams.

Wed, Oct 1, 2008 Outofcontrol Phoenix

I have several of my clients converted to Vista with new computers, it just so happens that many of my clients needed new systems so a Vista deployment was really a slam dunk. I believe that most companies should be at the end of service life with XP systems anyway so it makes sense to make the change. My experience with the Vista changeover has been good, very few problems and when compared with the Windows 3.11 to 95 and the 98 to 2000 and the 2000 to XP conversions, this was a breeze. As for moving to Linux or Mac, I love Ubuntu and Mandriva but come on! For business??? Not yet anyway.
Mac has a great product but going that direction is a little like going back to the IBM days where everything is made by one vendor and no real choices for the consumer.

Wed, Oct 1, 2008 Outofcontrol Phoenix

Feel sorry for Microsoft??? what are you talking about?

Tue, Sep 30, 2008 Sebastian San Francisco

People who feel sorry for Microsoft must either have money invested with them - or, are just plain evil.

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