While it’s easy to single out, the White House isn’t the only place you’re liable to find an outdated operating system like Microsoft’s (NASDAQ:MSFT) XP. Windows 7 finally overtook the decade-old XP operating system in the fall of 2011 to become the world’s most popular operating system (capturing a 40.5% market share in October, 2011 compared to XP’s 38.5%), but as Channelweb points out, that still leaves 300 million business users globally running XP.
The reality is, four years after Microsoft stopped selling XP through retail channels (with the exception of some low-powered netbooks that were allowed to include XP until 2010), three years after Microsoft ended mainstream support for the product, and two major OS releases later (Windows Vista and Windows 7), Windows XP is proving difficult for Microsoft to leave behind. Or, as Ars Technica puts it: “How longevity became a curse.”
Businesses that rely on Windows XP for their computers face a long list of challenges: the OS doesn’t offer the security that newer Windows versions do, installation onto new computers is difficult, the OS doesn’t support features like graphics acceleration that some current software requires, true 64-bit support for modern processors isn’t available, and device drivers for new peripherals are often lacking.
Behind the resistance
If running XP means an increased threat of being hacked, requires IT staff to jump through hoops to make printers and other peripherals work properly, hobbles the performance of new computers, and makes a growing list of software incompatible, the question has to be asked: Why the resistance to upgrading?
There are two main factors in play. The first is that XP is has been good enough to carry on for many years and as corporate IT infrastructure and policy has evolved to support it, a comfort zone has been reached. It may be a pain, but everyone knows how to deal with it. The idea of living with the inconvenience for a few more years is less unsettling than the chaos of wide-scale deployment of a new operating system.
The second is cost. Supporting XP costs companies in many ways, including opportunity cost and security risk — but such expenses tend to be absorbed back into the general IT budget and are difficult to quantify. Migrating to a modern operating system is expensive and time consuming, and as a major project, it gets costed out. Seeing that number has been enough to convince many companies that coasting a few more years is preferable.
Evaluating cost, risk, and benefit
Gartner put together estimates to migrate existing PCs from Windows XP to Windows 7 and came out with numbers ranging from $1,274 to $2,069 per machine. Some existing PCs will be unable to run Windows 7, requiring hardware replacement (although the cost per machine would remain near the same as upgrading since the new hardware would come with a Windows 7 license).
Until upgrades occur, software developers like Adobe (NASDAQ:ADBE) must choose between releasing products that take advantage of Windows 7 features but are incompatible with the computers used by over a third of their potential customers, or dumbing down their software.
Microsoft is stuck supporting a legacy OS while waiting for hundreds of millions of customers to fork over for a new WIndows 7 license. And there’s a risk that companies facing a massive migration project may just choose to try a completely different platform altogether — like Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) — or investigate cloud computing options.
Microsoft has drawn a line in the sand: on April 8, 2014, all support for Windows XP will be ended. After that, the clock starts ticking on what is shaping up to be a massive hardware and software upgrade cycle.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not own a position in any of the stocks named here.