Perspective: Throw Windows XP a lifeline, Microsoft

Security pro makes case that Microsoft rethink April 2014 retirement

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Millions of infected Windows XP machines in 2014 may not just pose the threats Pingree outlined, where exploits start on the older OS and wreak network havoc, but they would taint the Windows brand as insecure, ruining nearly a decade of work Microsoft has done in beefing up the security of the platform.

To many customers, Windows is Windows is Windows, with no discrimination between a creaky XP and the newest, locked-down 8.1: If headlines scream "Windows under attack," nuances disappear.

Pingree had a pair of suggestions for Microsoft, neither of which were new to the XP discussion.

"If it's such a big problem, maybe they should offer an 'Extended Life' [support] subscription and charge for it," Pingree said.

Microsoft will, after all, be crafting patches for Windows XP vulnerabilities rated "critical" and "important" after April for its "Custom Support" program, an after-retirement contract designed for very large customers who have not, for whatever reason, moved on from an older OS.

While Pingree's idea would not stamp out XP -- admittedly, it would only make people more likely to run XP from the grave -- at the least, it would give Microsoft an out. The company could point to the after-market support if threats developed, and effectively tell users to shoulder responsibility.

"Or Microsoft could make a lower-cost option for moving off XP to Windows 7," said Pingree. "That would move [Windows XP users] up one. Think of it more like a maintenance upgrade."

That's possible but not likely: Microsoft has not signaled it's willing to cut prices. Even if it did as Pingree suggested and revived Windows 7, that would be a difficult decision. Boxed copies of Windows 7 have already been pulled from retail by Microsoft. And while there is an upgrade path from Windows XP to Windows 8, the latter's reputation as a keyboard-and-mouse operating system remains shaky.

Microsoft's problem could simply go away. But that may not be a good thing in the end either.

As PC sales have contracted and tablet sales expanded -- and because PCs, even older ones, have proved "good enough" for customers -- analysts have predicted a lengthening of the former's upgrade cycle. It's possible, then, that many of the machines now running XP will not be replaced, will instead simply languish unused while tablets take on their roles, and be the customer's final traditional PC.

"Time is ticking," said Pingree.

Indeed it is. And not just for Windows XP.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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