XP lives! Windows 7 dies?

Okay, color me surprised. The last thing I expected from Microsoft was for the company to extend Windows XP's life for an unbelievable ten years. I thought Microsoft might extend XP Home's life for a while to try to keep Linux-powered netbooks at bay, especially those with Google's forthcoming Chrome operating system under the hood -- but the business XP line? Until 2020!? I never saw that coming.

I'd thought Microsoft was selling a lot of copies of Windows 7. That's certainly what Microsoft has been saying. Last January, Microsoft CEO and chief cheerleader Steve Ballmer claimed, "U.S. retail data shows that Windows PC sales jumped almost 50% the week it launched. On Black Friday, [NPD] reported that retailers sold 33% more Windows PCs than the year before. And for the 2009 holiday season a 50% increase in Windows PC sales from last year. Last year was a tough year, but these are still phenomenal numbers."

I guess the word we should have been paying attention to in this speech was "tough." A lot of other people have theories about why Microsoft is doing this. Of them all, I find Preston Gralla's theory, that Microsoft did it to con -- ah, "get enterprises to buy Windows 7 now rather than later," to be the most persuasive. But I don't quite buy that one either.

I find it hard to get my mind around Microsoft's own explanation for XP's life extension from Microsoft spokesman Brandon LeBlanc. He wrote: " While the majority of customers are actively transitioning to Windows 7, and PC manufacturers are focused on delivering PCs and devices with Windows 7 preinstalled, our business customers have told us that the removing end-user downgrade rights to Windows XP Professional could be confusing, given the rights change would be made for new PCs preinstalled with Windows 7 and managing a hybrid environment with PCs that have different end-user rights based on date of purchase would be challenging to track."

You couldn't do it with an Excel spreadsheet? I could, and there are dozens of system management and auditing programs that could do the job better and with less effort.

Be that as it may, LaBlanc continued, "To support our customers' 'unprecedented move' to migrate their PC environment to Windows 7, we have decided to extend downgrade rights to Windows XP Professional beyond the previously planned end date at Windows 7 SP1. This will help maintain consistency for downgrade rights throughout the Windows 7 lifecycle. As a result, the OEM versions of Windows 7 Professional and Windows 7 Ultimate will continue to include downgrade rights to the similar versions of Windows Vista or Windows XP Professional."

What's confusing about upgrading from one version of Windows to another? Yes, moving from XP to Windows 7 can be complicated, but so what? Moving from one operating system to another is never easy. That's why I and others recommend that if you move from XP to Windows 7, you do it by buying a new PC.

In particular, I find LaBlanc's comment that "To support our customers' 'unprecedented move' to migrate their PC environment to Windows 7, we have decided to extend downgrade rights to Windows XP Professional" to be almost any oxymoron. Explain to me please why, if business users are really moving to Windows 7, that continuing to support their ability to use XP instead makes any sense whatsoever?

I think what's really going on here is that businesses have refused to move from XP. No matter what Microsoft claims, I see no reason for them to continue to support XP except that its customers are telling them with their checkbooks that they actually don't want Windows 7. In the retail channel, which is what NPD measures, Windows 7 sales may be up -- but that's not because people actually want Windows 7. It's because it's almost impossible to buy a PC at a Best Buy, Fry's, or Wal-Mart that doesn't have Windows 7 in it.

Businesses don't buy PCs from their local electronics store, though. They buy them directly from OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) or VARs (value-added resellers). That's where the real money is for Microsoft and clearly, business customers are telling their vendors that they don't want Windows 7 anytime soon. That's the only real explanation I can see for Microsoft continuing to sell XP. But by instead calling it a "downgrade," Microsoft will still be able to claim that Windows 7 sales are increasing in business even as sales actually stay stagnant.

As a longtime Linux user, what I find really ironic is that Windows 7 is marginally better than XP. Indeed, if you are thinking about moving to Windows 7, you don't need to wait for Windows 7 SP1. Windows 7 is already good enough.

Mind you, if you're happy with XP, I can't see any compelling reason to move to 7. And based on what Microsoft has just done with XP, I guess many enterprises feel exactly the same way as I do. Windows 7 isn't going to die, but XP living on shows that 7 hasn't been the success that Microsoft had hoped for.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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