Perspective: Microsoft risks security reputation ruin by retiring XP

Telling users they must upgrade, and to Windows 8.1, doesn't cut it

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If Microsoft did decide to change direction, it has several options that have been proposed by customers, analysts and other observers.

  • Do a 180-degree turn and continue to patch XP. This would be the easiest to implement, but not to stomach, for Microsoft. The company could let natural replacement take its course, and keep patching XP until it reaches a lower share of all Windows PCs, that share set and publicized by Microsoft. The company could bolster its position by revealing the percentage of PCs running XP that access Windows Update, a telemetric mark it has declined to disclose, to show how prevalent XP really is, rather than make the media and customers rely on estimates from the likes of Net Applications.
  • Continue to support XP, but only with patches for critical vulnerabilities. Microsoft's security team has already committed to crafting patches for critical and important vulnerabilities in Windows XP, as those will be provided to enterprises that have paid $200 per PC for the first year of extra-extended support. (Those companies automatically receive all updates rated critical, but must pay extra, above and beyond the $200 per machine fee, for those pegged important.) If it did this, it would probably have to refund those moneys, or perhaps automatically ship the important updates free of charge to companies that ponied up for the additional support.
  • Offer the extra-extended support to everyone for a fee. Microsoft could offer a subscription to the uber-extended support to everyone, including the consumers and small- and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) not eligible for the corporate plan. Pricing the subscription would be the most difficult part of this decision: Low enough to entice a sizable number, high enough to be materially important as a replacement for the revenue Microsoft assumes it would lose in new licenses to OEMs. Customers have suggested numbers like $50 or $60 a year.
  • Revive Windows 7 and discount an XP-to-Windows 7 upgrade. Microsoft has already removed Windows 7 Home Premium and Windows 7 Professional from its own sales outlets, and stopped selling copies to middlemen like Newegg and Amazon. (Those retailers continue to sell the edition because they, or the distributors they rely on, have stockpiled copies.) By reviving Windows 7, and offering that as an upgrade from XP -- few XP PC owners seem interested in making the jump to the radically-redesigned Windows 8 -- Microsoft sells a license to Windows, if not to the newest Windows. A steep discount, perhaps to the $39.99 it charged customers for the Windows 7-to-Windows 8 upgrade in late 2012 and early 2013, might entice a measurable number to ditch XP. Reducing the price even further -- to the $19.99 Apple charged in 2012 for OS X 10.8, aka Mountain Lion -- should shake loose even more customers from XP, according to studies of upgrade pricing and user share changes.
  • Kick off a Windows XP PC trade-in program in cooperation with one or more OEMs. If Microsoft is really serious about getting XP out of circulation, one approach would be to have customers turn in their old XP-powered PCs for a new device. Microsoft has run buyback programs before -- last year it tried to goose sales of Surface tablets and Windows smartphones by paying customers for their used iOS and Android mobile devices -- and could do much the same for aged XP PCs. The deal would probably have to be limited to its own retail stores, or possibly the stores-inside-stores it's created within the Best Buy chain, because of the need to verify eligibility and assist users in moving data, settings, even applications, from the old to the new systems. But the reach of Best Buy and its Geek Squad technical assistance could make a plan like this realistic.
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Such a program could advance several goals Microsoft has set. It would promote Windows 8.1 devices, and be seen as a way to boost that edition's profile as much as to eradicate XP. If the devices, after a trade-in, were in the lowest-priced category -- Microsoft's reportedly cut Windows 8.1's license fee for sub-$250 notebooks -- it might quiet the complaints from some current XP-forever users that they can't afford to upgrade and simultaneously attack Chrome OS-based Chromebooks, the cheap laptops that Microsoft seems to be very concerned about. Additionally, a trade-in or trade-up program would bring some XP users into the Microsoft Account fold, the single sign-on used to connect to the company's services, and so into the customer pool for those services.

But because it's the most radical of moves, it's also the one least likely for Microsoft, conservative by nature, to make.

Undoubtedly, Microsoft has thought of those options, and likely many more: The company doesn't lack for brainy people, even though some of its marketing messaging has been off-key. But by the evidence -- silence most of all -- it rejected them and decided to continue the march to XP patch cut-off.

That's a shame. Because once Windows's reputation and that of the ecosystem starts taking hits because unpatched XP systems become infected, it will be too late to do much more than watch that reputation swirl toward the drain.

None of the above suggestions are guaranteed to hasten the elimination of Windows XP from the rolls of active operating systems; ultimately, only time will do that. But by taking one or more of those steps, Microsoft could point to what it has done to help customers get off XP, rather than have others point out what it has not done. That could mean the difference between a tainted reputation and one still credible.

Microsoft cannot afford a stumble like the one which that result from XP turning on its owners and the company that made it, not when the PC business has stagnated, when its tablet strategy has yet to pay off and when that same strategy relies on an operating system named "Windows."

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 © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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