FAQ: Reprieve or RIP for Windows XP?

Microsoft gives XP a bit of a break, but doesn't budge on drop-dead dates for most versions

As anticipated, Microsoft Corp. yesterday granted a partial pardon to its long-running Windows XP operating system, which had been slated for a forced retirement from new sales starting this year.

But while the news was trumpeted by some as a general reprieve — in part because of users clamoring to keep the six-year-old operating system instead of having to migrate to Windows Vista — that's not exactly the story. So what did Microsoft say? And how much has its plans for XP really changed?

Questions worth asking are usually worth answering, of course. Here are some answers to Microsoft's latest XP move.

What exactly did Microsoft do? The software vendor said it will let some computer makers continue preinstalling Windows XP Home on systems until June 30, 2010, or until a year after Microsoft rolls out the next version of its operating system, dubbed Windows 7 — whichever of those dates comes first.

But the extension only applies to a specific category of mobile hardware, which Microsoft has given its own acronym: ULCPC (short for ultra-low-cost PC). That generally applies to the under-$400, sub-two-pound notebooks and laptops currently characterized by Intel's Classmate and Asustek Computer's Eee. These systems, which are expected to play a major role in the PC markets in countries such as India and China, were originally designed to run only Linux, the open-source operating system.

Microsoft yesterday maintained that it made the move not to stymie the growth of Linux, but because users and hardware vendors alike are demanding XP on the ULCPCs. "One thing we've heard loud and clear, from both our customers and our partners, is the desire for Windows on this new class of devices," said Michael Dix, general manager of Windows client product management, in a canned Q&A posted on Microsoft's Web site. "We are enthusiastic about this category because it enables us to bring the benefits of Windows to more customers."

Does Windows XP Professional get the same extension? No. The business version of XP, which includes remote access tools, significantly beefed-up network support and much more sophisticated file and folder access controls than the home edition does, still goes away on the dates Microsoft has already set for ending sales.

So Microsoft didn't give XP a blanket extension? Absolutely not. Dix made it clear that the operating system isn't getting a general reprieve. "There is no plan to extend sales of other editions of Windows XP beyond June 30, 2008," he said before launching into a recitation of what Microsoft sees as Vista's success in the market.

When will the other versions of XP officially be retired then? There are several dates that apply, but the one you're probably thinking of is the June 30 deadline that Dix referred to. That's the last day when large computer makers — the Dells, HPs and Lenovos of the world — will be allowed to preinstall Windows XP on new PCs. It also marks the official end of XP as a retail product.

So-called system builders — the small shops that assemble machines for customers — can put XP on the PCs they sell until Jan. 31, 2009. Microsoft pushed back the cut-off dates last September, when it postponed the then-looming demise of XP by five months.

Will other computer makers jump into the ULCPC market? Microsoft certainly thinks so. To guide hardware resellers in designing XP-capable ULCPCs, Microsoft yesterday issued a detailed set of guidelines (download PDF) for laptops that rely on flash-based storage instead of traditional hard drives.

It's dense reading in spots, if only because of the formulas that Microsoft says PC makers should use to determine such things as the amount of flash RAM to stick in the devices — Flash Storage Capacity = WINXP_SIZE + APPS_SIZE + USER_DATA is an example. But in general, the guidelines spell out notebook PCs that pack 2GB to 8GB of flash storage and sport a minimum of 256MB of system memory and a processor running at 500 MHz or faster.

Will Microsoft let computer manufacturers install Windows XP on low-priced desktop PCs after the June 20, 2008, and January, 31, 2009, deadlines? No. Only hardware that meets Microsoft's still-cloudy ULCPC definition will be allowed to ship with XP Home after January 2009. Desktops need not apply, in other words.

Is Microsoft extending its technical support for XP to account for these ULCPCs? Nope. The company said previously that it will shift Windows XP from what it calls "mainstream" support to its "extended" support stage next April, and that isn't changing. When a Microsoft product leaves mainstream support behind, the company ditches all of its free support except online self-help and issues free fixes only for security vulnerabilities.

But Microsoft doesn't directly support Windows when the operating system is preinstalled on a new machine — it's the hardware vendor's responsibility to take Windows support calls. So yesterday's announcement really doesn't matter, support-wise. Even though, say, Asustek may install Windows XP Home on ULCPCs after the operating system falls into extended support limbo, it's never-no-mind for Microsoft and customers. Asustek would be the one to field support queries from users.

Microsoft's Dix put it plainly in the online Q&A on Thursday. "There will also be no impact on our technical support plans," he said. "Mainstream technical support will continue to be available until April 2009, and extended support will continue until April 2014."

Let me get this straight. After June 30, I won't be able to buy Windows XP except in a ULCPC? We didn't say that. The June 30 deadline applies to what Microsoft calls its "retail channels." On a License Availability Roadmap that's posted on the Microsoft Web site, the company says June 30 is the end date for sales of "direct OEM and retail" licenses. There's nothing about absolute, end-of-all-availability.

System builders can still sell XP licenses through next January, of course. (You remembered that from above, right?) And stand-alone copies of XP will certainly be sold after the June 30 deadline, if only on sites like eBay. For instance, a quick search conducted today on the online auction site, using the keyword phrase "windows xp," found more than 1,000 items up for bid or purchase in the Operating Systems section of the site alone.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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