May 8, 2008

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Whither XP?
You don’t have to buy Vista yet
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

By most accounts, Windows Vista is not the overwhelming success Microsoft was hoping it would be. It took longer to work out the kinks and release the operating system than originally planned, so PC users were stuck with Windows XP.

Microsoft’s problem? The users didn’t really mind.

While it’s probably a stretch to say a majority of people actively love XP, it’s the first Windows operating system that doesn’t inspire cursing as a matter of course. It rarely crashes, hardware and software installation is fairly painless and the interface is nice and pretty. That wasn’t necessarily the case with previous consumer versions 95, 98 and Millennium Edition.

Imagine the outcry, then, when Microsoft announced it would finally stop selling XP last year. It hadn’t had an absurdly long life, but longer than its predecessors, and consumers hadn’t immediately switched to the newer version in hopes of a better experience. Windows 98, for example, came out in June of 1998; the company stopped selling retail boxes four years later.

XP is now six and a half years old. New retail boxes, as well as “Direct OEM” licenses that the likes of HP and Gateway purchase to install on the PCs they sell, will no longer be available after June 30. “System Builder” licenses, generally used by smaller computer makers, will stop being available after Jan. 31, 2009.

Does that mean you’ll be out of luck trying to buy a PC with XP come July? Of course not. Don’t be silly.

For one thing, PC already on the shelf won’t be pulled and reconfigured with Vista. Retailers can sell out whatever XP stock they have. For that matter, computer makers can keep installing XP on the PCs they ship to stores if they already bought the licenses, so it’ll be months before XP boxes disappear.

Above and beyond normal supply chain stuff, Microsoft itself has left the door open for XP buyers in some circumstances. One they’ve explicitly engineered is allowing XP Home to be installed on Ultra Low-Cost (ULC) PCs until either June 30, 2010, or one year after they release their next operating system. Since ULCPCs, like the Asus Eee PC laptop, often aren’t particularly well endowed with high performance hardware, they just can’t run Vista. Microsoft would rather extend XP than lose that market entirely to Linux.

Another way buyers might still be able to buy XP machines is through a liberal interpretation of the “downgrade option” that Vista buyers have. The theory is that large organizations might be thoroughly invested in XP on all their machines and shouldn’t be forced to upgrade before they’re ready. Rumors have been swirling, though, that big PC makers — Dell in particular — might just pre-downgrade their PCs for anyone who wants them that way. Since Dell is also offering some PCs without Windows at all, in favor of Ubuntu Linux and FreeDOS, Microsoft might not want to make too big of a stink.

On top of all that, support for XP is suspiciously active. A third service pack for the aging operating system was released just last month. How ... nice of them.

With such seemingly conflicting actions regarding Windows XP, I must ask you, Microsoft: what are your intentions toward my operating system?