Windows XP: Going, going ... gone?

According to Microsoft's timeline, XP is on its way to becoming an ex-operating system.

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These phases were set in a schedule with definite dates and durations. Business products would be supported for 10 years -- mainstream support for five years, extended support for another five. Consumer products would get five years of mainstream support, but no extended support.

But there are two other factors in a product's life cycle -- service packs and the availability of a new version of the product:

  • Service packs have a life cycle of their own. Support for each operating system service pack ends 24 months after the next service pack release (support for Windows XP Home SP1 support, for example, ended in 2006, two years after the release of SP2 in 2004) or at the end of the product's support life cycle, whichever comes first.
  • When it looked like mainstream support for Windows XP might run out before the next version of Windows made it to market, Microsoft amended the support life cycle policy to promise that mainstream support would last for either five years or for two years after a successor version is released, whichever period is longer.

While the product life-cycle guidelines set very definite limits on product life spans, Microsoft has shown a willingness to move the goal posts when it gets enough pressure. When Windows XP shipped in December 2001, it was slated to be in mainstream support until December 2006. Microsoft's internal problems with getting Vista out the door finally forced the company to extend the mainstream period for XP out to April 2009, and to make some other accommodations, like eliminating the distinction between business and consumer versions, so that XP Home will have an extended support phase just like XP Pro.

The result is that next year, on April 14, 2009, Microsoft will end mainstream support for XP, and five years later, on April 8, 2014, it will stop supporting XP at all.

The other life cycle

But even before that, XP faces a major event in an entirely different life cycle, one that Microsoft has said very little about -- the sales life cycle.

The key dates for sales come much sooner than 2009 or 2014. In fact, in only a few weeks, on June 30, 2008, Microsoft will stop selling XP through its retail and reseller channels (the resellers are big manufacturers like Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. that sell PCs with Windows preinstalled).

System builders, the "white box" retailers who build PCs to order, will be given another seven months, but on Jan. 31, 2009, a couple of months before XP exits mainstream support, Microsoft will stop selling XP altogether (except for a version sold in some less-developed countries and a special arrangement for XP Home in China).

At least that's the current information. It could change. It has before.

In the past, the company has generally kept the previous version of Windows on the market for two years or so, past the introduction of a new version. That was apparently the plan for XP. When Vista finally shipped to enterprise customers in late 2006, the on-sale dates for XP were reset to January 2009.

But the new operating system didn't capture the popular imagination quite the way Microsoft had planned. Vista's heavy demands for hardware, its rocky support for applications and peripherals, and its draconian security features have left consumers less than enthusiastic. (InfoWorld.com, for example, has collected more than 100,000 signatures on a Save Windows XP petition.)

Enterprise customers have also been slower to move to Vista than to previous versions of Windows. A Microsoft reseller, CDW Corp., reported this January the results of a poll that found that a year after its release, fewer than half of businesses were using or evaluating Vista.

Big resellers, the PC manufacturers who preinstall Windows on their products, initially switched from XP to Vista when the consumer versions of the operating systems shipped in January 2007. But by April, Dell, Lenovo, and HP were once again selling machines with XP installed. An April 4 post on Dell's Web site announced the company's intention to sell XP on certain systems "until later this summer." Nearly a year later, the company is still selling XP systems.

In September 2007, Microsoft agreed to a six-month extension of XP's on-sale dates, along with license provisions for Vista's business editions that grant buyers the right to downgrade to XP.

All this leaves Microsoft in an unfamiliar position. Its major customers -- the resellers, system builders and enterprise licensees -- and a vocal part of the Windows user base all appear to be reluctant users of Vista. None of this means that Microsoft is likely to grant XP another stay of execution. But it does mean we're going to be in for an interesting few weeks leading up to June 30.

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