While Windows 7 can lay claim to being Microsoft’s fastest-selling operating system (OS) ever, Windows XP is undoubtedly its most enduring.
XP celebrated its tenth birthday last month and, according to figures released by the software giant at its Worldwide Partner Conference in July, it is still the operating system of choice for about 300 million business users across the globe.
With XP set to enter end of life in 2014, having such a high number of users tied to an OS that will soon be out of support is hardly sensible, and a situation Microsoft has called on its partners to help it rectify.
Those that do will be rewarded with a slice of the $400m (£251m) worth of services Microsoft claims will be purchased by this tranche of XP users as they upgrade to Windows 7.
But if partners are serious about getting within sniffing distance of this opportunity, they need to understand why businesses are so reluctant to dump XP, said Helen Major (pictured, below left), channel marketing manager at workspace management vendor AppSense.
“Large-scale migration projects can be costly, time consuming and disruptive,” she added. “Unless companies are given options that minimise these three things, we will definitely see a continued reluctance from IT managers to move off XP.”
Andy Trish, managing director of Microsoft Gold Partner NCI Technologies, agrees that cost is a major sticking point for many businesses where Windows 7 upgrades are concerned.
“No one has a problem with the price of Windows 7 software, but there is no real advantage to be had from upgrading unless you are refreshing the hardware at the same time,” he said.
“This, coupled with the financial climate, means many customers are leaving upgrading to Windows 7 until they get to a point where they have no choice but to replace their hardware, which already comes with it installed.”
Value for money
Using upgrade costs as a reason not to move off XP does not seem to hold much sway with Microsoft, though. For example, the firm’s chief operating officer, Kevin Turner, claims the software’s longevity means end users have already achieved a massive return on their initial XP investment.
Furthermore, Ian Moulster, Windows team project manager at Microsoft, told CRN that sticking with XP for money-saving purposes is a false economy.
“Windows 7 is cheaper to run than XP from a support standpoint because it is a far more stable OS, which means fewer crashes and support calls,” he said. “Even if you only upgrade the software, it still uses a lot less power.”
He advises partners to use Microsoft’s free online Windows 7 RoI tool to convince customers struggling to appreciate how an OS upgrade could leave them financially better off.
Partners should also remind customers that once XP enters end of life, they will have to pay for custom support, which is not cheap.
“Once the 2014 date rolls around, that will definitely be it. There will be no further support, no security patches and no protection,” he stressed.
Lack of security is already a big problem for XP users, added Clive Longbottom (pictured, right), service director at analyst Quocirca, so Microsoft partners should be pushing the upgrade message as a matter of urgency.
“XP is not a valid OS any more because it has an ancient security framework and does not support modern applications where Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) is required,” he said.
Not working out
Another problem XP users face is that some of the third-party business software programs they use do not run on Windows 7. Others also have line-of-business applications that require IE6, which is available only on XP.
However, opinion is split on how big an obstacle these two issues are, with some channel onlookers citing it as a major stumbling block for XP upgrades.
Gary Schare, president and chief operating officer at software vendor Browsium, falls into this camp.
His company’s flagship product, called Unibrows, allows people to run IE6 business applications within IE7, IE8 and IE9.
He estimates that 10-to-20 per cent of IE6 line-of-business applications do not run on later versions of the web browser.
“In many cases, these are business-critical applications that would cost companies millions of dollars to upgrade or replace completely, so they sweat it out on XP instead,” explained Schare.
Microsoft’s Moulster admits that software incompatibility has been an issue for a “few pockets” of users since Windows 7’s launch in October 2009.
He said his team did a lot of pre-launch work with more than 1,000 third-party vendors to make sure their products would run on Windows 7, but concedes that a few niche ones slipped through.
Even so, there are several things partners can do to counteract this, which should allow most Windows 7 projects to proceed.
“Some XP applications are hard-coded for use only with that OS, but if you persevere with the installation, they will sometimes work,” said Moulster.
Partners can also download an XP emulator from the Microsoft website onto a Windows 7 machine that will allow their customers to run incompatible applications.
Additionally, software vendors ChangeBASE and AppDNA both offer tools that can help end users overcome these problems, added Moulster.
Virtualisation may also provide the channel with a way around this problem, offered AppSense’s Major, and minimise the disruption that a company-wide Windows 7 rollout can cause.
“Compatibility issues become irrelevant as user virtualisation allows users to move around between versions,” she said. “A worker already migrated to Windows 7 can log in at an XP machine and it will still look and feel like their own desktop.”
In some cases end users would be better off giving these legacy applications the boot, if it means they can finally ditch XP, added Longbottom.
He said: “If you are still wedded to an application where the developers have not updated it to run effectively under IE7, IE8 or IE9, you should seriously consider dumping that application, because IE6 has the same level of security as an open barn door.”
He also claims that software compatibility was a much bigger problem a few years ago when XP’s first successor, Windows Vista, was launched, as 23 per cent of all software failed to work with that OS.
Steven Hennessey, sales director of Microsoft Gold Partner Computerworld Business Solutions, disagrees, claiming Vista’s reputation is the reason why some Windows 7 projects have failed to get off the ground.
“Aside from the third-party software stuff, many people were disappointed by the user experience they received from Vista,” he said. “A lot of those now look at Windows 7 and dismiss it as a more polished version of that when it is not.”
The spectre of Windows 8
In addition to upgrade costs and software compatibility problems, there is also the fear that the threat of Windows 8 could cause some people to stick with XP and bypass Windows 7 altogether.
Last week, Microsoft used its Build Conference in California to reveal further details about Windows 8, but stopped short of revealing when it will go on sale.
Because of this, and the security risk posed by running XP and IE6, end users waiting for the launch of Windows 8 to ditch the decade-old OS would be taking a bit of a gamble. “For me, it has to be Windows 7 at this stage,” added Longbottom.
Meanwhile, added NCI Technologies’ Trish, it will be interesting to see over the coming years how successful Microsoft will be at convincing Windows 7 users to upgrade.
The vendor has already revealed that Windows 8 will have the same system requirements as its predecessor, meaning users will not have to factor in the cost of a hardware refresh next time.
Even so, Trish fears this may not be enough to make Windows 7 users move.
“XP was a great operating system and Windows 7 is even better,” he said. “Is Microsoft expecting everyone with Windows 7 to trade up? Because that is not going to happen.”
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