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XP, Vista and the Long Run for Microsoft

"Who is gonna make it?
We'll find out
In the long run"

-- "The Long Run" by The Eagles, from 1979

(And, yes, you'll be humming that song all day now. You're welcome.)

Let's go ahead and call it a movement, or at least a cause. What started as an online petition demanding that Microsoft offer XP indefinitely and not scrap it with OEMs for Vista in June has become something greater, something that has leaked out of the trade press and nerd circles and into the real world.

It's not just about an online petition -- a concept we've always found a bit silly, but that's an aside -- anymore. It's about users talking to Microsoft and Microsoft looking away and whistling as if nobody's saying anything at all. And it's about Redmond hitting a wall with how much it can push people around with forced upgrades. (Speaking of XP, by the way, Service Pack 3 is apparently finally on the way.)

Most partners don't seem too concerned about the fate of Vista itself -- at least not yet, anyway. There's not all that much money to be made in OS sales or even hardware refreshes these days; most of the dough is in consulting and services. VARs, consultants and integrators can build on pretty much any Microsoft platform and might even prefer working with XP as an OS.

There are greater issues in play for Microsoft, though. We at RCPU have long maintained that Vista would eventually become most people's default operating system, that we'd come in time to embrace it the way we now seem to love XP. But, with Microsoft already dropping hints about Windows 7 arriving as early as 2009, we're not quite so sure anymore.

Beyond that, and much more importantly, the software world is changing. Let's not pretend that Windows is about to lose massive market share to Apple or Linux; that's not going to happen, especially on the enterprise side, where companies have a lot of money sunk into Redmond's wares. But other operating systems -- especially some Linux flavors -- are much more serious competitors for Microsoft than they were even five years ago. And on the consumer side, the Mac is rebounding quite nicely, thank you very much. Then there's the wild card, Google, which might just make the OS obsolete someday with its SaaS offerings...although that day still seems very, very far away.

The issue here for Microsoft isn't short-term Vista sales (which, Redmond keeps telling us, are great -- we'll see how long that lasts); it's long-term customer and partner relationships. It's not just the signers of the online petition who are shouting at Microsoft not to scrap XP, it's also enterprises, who have mostly avoided Vista like a vegan avoiding filet mignon: without a second thought and, in a few cases, with more than a little disgust.

Microsoft has to listen to its customers and partners in a way it hasn't for a long time, if ever before. It can't offer XP indefinitely; that would throw a wrench into Redmond's whole revenue model. But it could extend XP's life until Vista becomes a little more manageable (with drivers, incumbent corporate applications and the like) or a little more popular, whichever comes first.

It could even, if Windows 7 is really on schedule for 2010-ish, just bite the bullet and keep XP alive until users are ready to move to what hopefully will be a lighter, more user-friendly, more driver-ready OS. In other words, skip Vista altogether and just make Windows 7 the next forced (but hopefully voluntary) upgrade. That plan, of course, assumes that Microsoft has learned from its Vista mistakes.

Then again, Microsoft will probably do pretty much what it has done so far: almost nothing. Well, nothing much different from its usual course of action, anyway. The company's making buckets of money, more than ever before, and most users will probably begrudgingly switch to Vista once they have to, anyway. Forced upgrades can be nice little revenue boosts for partners and Microsoft both.

But what consequences will the same, old strong-arm strategy have for Microsoft (and, in turn, its channel) in a software world that really is changing? Even if the short- and mid-term are both pretty secure for Windows, what about the long-term? It seems short-sighted, and, in the long run, dangerous for Microsoft to pretend that everything's fine with Vista and that everybody loves it, which is mostly what the company seems to be doing. An acknowledgement that Vista missed the mark for many users would be a start -- after all, we don't think it's so much the popularity of XP but rather the problems with Vista that are keeping the new OS down -- but some extension of XP's life to placate those who really don't want Vista would be even better.

Eventually, companies and consumers are going to start seriously looking at other operating systems again. It's a trickle now, but it could someday be a flood. And, eventually, folks are going to have to ask themselves whether Microsoft (and its partners, by extension) have earned their trust and faith over the years or whether they're confident in and maybe even excited about going with an alternative. Microsoft had better think long and hard right now about what it wants the answer to be.

What's your take on Microsoft potentially extending XP's life? Would you like to see it? Do you ever get frustrated with the way Microsoft treats its customers? Let it all out at lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on 04/16/2008 at 1:21 PM


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