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Is Microsoft Losing the Fight to Kill Windows XP?

Imagine the dilemma Apple would face if the majority of Mac users still used the original version of OS X released in 2001. Of course that would be a near-impossible situation for the simple reason that most of the Macs still in service can’t run that OS — it’s too old. What’s more, OS X 10.0 was little more than the second public beta for Apple’s Unix-based OS.

If you recall, it was somewhat feature limited. CD support was lacking, and printing was hit or miss. Performance was slow even on the fastest Macs. In those days, Apple didn’t even support hardware acceleration for interface elements, such as Finder windows. This is why Apple held off making OS X the default system on new Macs. For a while, they’d ship with Mac OS 9 as the default, and OS X as the alternative primarily for testing purposes.

Windows XP, also released in 2001, was decidedly different. After years of hits and misses, most everything coalesced into a pretty decent OS. After some service packs, it became reliable, fast, and not as malware-prone as earlier Microsoft operating systems. It’s no wonder that the adoption rate soared, and it’s been near impossible to convince tens of millions of Windows users to upgrade.

According to a recent Web metrics report, which basically checks traffic on a number of sites around the world, Windows XP had a slightly less than 30% share of the global market. That number seems almost incredible, considering Microsoft has issued no less than three reference releases since then: Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 (now at version 8.1).

Worse, PCs that don’t go online, or only access private online networks (such as banks and merchant processing systems), aren’t counted by such metrics schemes. It’s reported, for example, that 95% of the ATM machines in the U.S. run on Windows XP. So the actual number of users may be far higher than that recent estimate.

It’s not that Microsoft hasn’t tried to convince people to upgrade, but they haven’t made it easy. For one thing, there’s no simple installation scheme to go direct from Windows XP to, say, Windows 7, which is considered the best successor. Unlike the user experience on a Mac, if you want to take a PC running Windows XP — and let’s assume the hardware is up to the task — to Windows 7, you basically have to rebuild the hard drive from scratch. That means wiping it clean, installing the new OS, and reinstalling all your apps. Of course, you have to make sure your apps are even compatible, so there may be the expense of buying and installing upgrades before you can get back to business.

As you can see, consumers would probably prefer to just buy a new PC, and they are cheap enough if you’re just interested in something for casual use, such as going online and managing email. That’s the hope of PC makers, although Microsoft earns more revenue if you buy a retail OS upgrade. Manufacturers — or OEMS — pay far, far less for a Windows license.

A business would probably create a master disk image for deployment across a company’s network. But there still has to be extensive testing to make sure that the mission-critical software needed by the company is compatible, not to mention peripheral drivers.

In my travels, I still see PCs running Windows XP in business environments. From medical and legal offices to dry cleaners, if something works, why switch?

Microsoft’s latest effort to dump Windows XP is to stop support as of April of this year, but such deadlines have slipped before. You also wonder why they haven’t offered a simple upgrade path. Other than buying a new Windows PC with the latest OS preloaded — and HP is now offering Windows 7 because Windows 8 is a non-starter — why should any individual or company go through the horrendous upgrade process? Forget the purchase price.

While Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, has a lot on his plate to remake the company for the 21st century, one of his key jobs ought to be finding a way to persuade customers to abandon Windows XP. Just saying it won’t be supported isn’t sufficient, although some businesses will take the hint and get with the program.

Now I know Microsoft doesn’t care what I have to say, although some of their people do visit this site. My suggestion would be to offer both Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 as a cheap upgrade — say $29.99 — for people who are still using Windows XP. The special upgrade kit would only function on those older PCs, and would include a special installer that would handle whatever needs to be handled to simplify the process for even the novice PC user.

Such an installer might require that you run an analysis tool first to determine what apps and peripheral drivers you need to upgrade, or replace. I suppose Microsoft could strike deals with key peripheral makers and app developers to get you free or inexpensive upgrades that could even be included as part of the OS upgrade process.

This may seem rather complicated. But, other than convincing tens of millions of PC users to dump their computers and buy new models, what can Microsoft do? This sorry situation is complicated by the fact that people aren’t buying as many PCs as they used to. I suppose many Windows users might use the occasion to buy a tablet instead. For Microsoft, it’s late in the game. Nadella can prove his mettle by putting this problem at or near the top of his agenda and announcing a solution that actually works.