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Microsoft and the Windows XP Albatross

Lest we forget, Windows XP was released in the fall of 2001, not long after the first version of OS X arrived. Despite it’s age and great success, XP has become one of Microsoft’s worst nightmares, because tens and tens of millions of users simply won’t give it up. The tepid uptake of Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 hasn’t helped one bit.

According to a recent set of Web metrics from Net Market Share, the piece of the Windows XP pie actually grew from 28.98% last December to 29.23% in January.

Now before I go on, let me make it clear that stats of that sort are approximate, based on online access by computers running different OS versions. It doesn’t include computers that don’t go online, or don’t visit the sites used in the sampling. But that may only make things worse, as Windows XP is widely used in point-of-sale systems that will never go online, or go online to connect to a private network, such as a merchant processing system. So it may very well be that XP’s share is far higher than these estimates indicate, which only makes matters worse.

In contrast, the very same metrics show that Windows 8 and 8.1, collectively, have a mere 10.58%. OS X 10.9, Mavericks, has 3.2%. Windows 7 has the largest share, at 47.49%.

Now it’s not as if Microsoft isn’t doing everything it can to persuade Windows users to upgrade. Support for XP will finally be dropped on April 8, but security updates will still be offered until July 2015. So you’d think that customers would be rushing to ditch XP and at least move on to Windows 7.

But that is by no means certain, nor is it certain that Microsoft won’t delay those deadlines yet again.

As I’ve mentioned previously, lots of businesses still depend on XP, such as my chiropractor’s office. When I asked him when or if they will ever upgrade, he said he expects to eventually, but the software they use still runs just fine. So there’s no rush. The same can be said for a local dry cleaner that’s still using an impact printer from the 1980s. The possibilities for a Windows upgrade are even less for that business.

This doesn’t seem to be an issue of quality either. Most industry professionals agree that Windows 7 is a far better operating system from the standpoint of reliability and security. But upgrades in the Windows world aren’t always as seamless as on a Mac. So going to Windows 7 would invariably involve rebuilding the PC’s drive and reinstalling all apps, which is not a casual process by any means. A business may simply set up a drive image to deploy to the company’s PCs, but smaller businesses might put off such an upgrade as long as possible.

There are other considerations, such as drivers for graphic cards and peripherals that might also be as old as the OS. As you see, this is a decision that carries considerable costs to a business and isn’t going to be considered unless absolutely necessary. For a point-of-sale system, it may be less likely to happen.

Now Microsoft would surely prefer to sell customers on Windows 8.1, but there is that embarrassing decision from HP recently to offer PCs with Windows 7. That comes as the PC industry is almost collapsing for some makers. This week, Sony announced that the VAIO PC line would be, in part, sold off, and otherwise discontinued. So after all is said and done, and thousands of employees lose their paychecks, the line will only be offered in Japan.

This is typical of the way the PC industry is going, however. Sony tried to sell premium Windows PCs to a market that wanted cheap and cheaper. They did a pretty good job of it for a while, though; so good, in fact that Steve Jobs famously went to Sony in the early 2000s to discuss the possibility of having them build OS X clones. It never happened, of course, which is probably a good thing, but it is also clear Jobs very much admired Sony over the years.

Sony’s departure from the PC business merely confirms what has been obvious, which is that it’s no longer possible for any company, other than Apple, to earn large profits from selling traditional computers. That Microsoft continues to have problems persuading customers to upgrade to Windows 8/8.1 is only part of the problem.

But with a new CEO taking charge, will there be much, if any, change at all? After all Bill Gates will, for a while at least, be watching over the shoulder of Satya Nadella, and I can’t imagine what that’s going to be like. Sure, it may make sense in the sense of taking an engineering-oriented executive and schooling him in the finer points of dealing with the company’s various divisions, partners, the financial community, and putting forth a proper public face. The latter may be the most difficult task of all, if you consider some of those recordings of Nadella’s public speeches. Sure, Tim Cook hasn’t been so great either, but he’s learning. Perhaps Nadella will as well, but the real problem will be fixing what’s wrong at Microsoft.

And just persuading large numbers of users to upgrade from Windows XP may be the most difficult task of all.