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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What happens after June 30?

XP won't suddenly disappear, though. It will take some time for PCs loaded with XP to move from factories to warehouses to sellers to buyers. Shrink-wrapped FPP versions of the various editions of XP will also remain on sale until supplies are exhausted. And even after June 30, there will still be two ways to obtain XP until Jan. 31, 2009.

The easiest way will be to buy a new PC with XP installed from a white box system builder. It will, of course, be a reseller's version of the operating system (white box builders tend to use the same reseller versions as the larger vendors), which is tied to the PC it's installed on and can't be transferred to another computer.

Or you can buy a new PC with a reseller version of Vista Business or Vista Ultimate installed and downgrade to XP Pro (download PDF). There are enough pain points in this process that you won't want to undertake it lightly. Although you may have the right to downgrade, the maker of your PC isn't obliged to supply an XP install disk. If it's important to you, check before you buy. And although you can reinstall Vista later on, you have to do it from the installation files or media you got with the machine, so don't wipe those out by accident.

You won't be able to activate your new XP install with its previously used product key across the Internet, either. A query to Microsoft on this last point produced the following clarification:

"A customer who wishes to downgrade to XP should be able to do so using their original XP disc and original XP product key. That customer may have to call [Microsoft customer service] to get an override in case their hardware changed and their hardware ID went out of tolerance. Activation is governed by the RIT/ROT count. 'RIT' equals the number of activations on the single machine. 'ROT' equals the number of activations [of that product key] on different machines. So if the customer activated the key more than the RIT limit or if he changed the hardware, only then would they have to call a Product Activation call center."

Does that make everything clearer?

Support goes on

Although the sales life cycle starts to wind down on June 30, you can keep on using XP for as long as you want to. You might want to run XP until the next version of Windows (currently called Windows 7) comes out; it's expected in 2010. Or you might want to give some other operating system a little more time to mature. Perhaps you think that Ubuntu Linux is just a couple of versions away from real usability.

In both these cases, time is on your side. There won't be any changes in XP support until April 14, 2009, when Windows XP Service Pack 2 moves from mainstream support to extended support. Extended support's security fixes should certainly keep you going safely until April 8, 2014, or until Windows 7 actually does ship, whichever comes first.

The problem is, there's support and then there's support. The last time Microsoft ended mainstream support for a version of Windows was in June 2005, when it stopped supporting Windows 2000. By the end of 2006, major software vendors had also ended their support for the operating system. New products didn't support Windows 2000, and upgrades of existing Win2K products to new versions weren't available.

This lack of upgrades to run on defunct operating systems is a natural result of market forces. Application software makers, just like Microsoft, want to minimize their support costs by supporting their products on as few operating system versions as economically possible, so when an operating system version's percentage of the installed base falls below its potential to contribute to the bottom line, the vendor will cut its support -- and deflect complaints by pointing at Microsoft.

XP is certainly much more widely used than Win2K, and it will probably be supported by application vendors for a lot longer as a result. But if you really want to stay with XP, you should be prepared to stay with your current applications as well. There may not be any upgrades.

Finally, there is one more factor that might stretch out the life of XP a bit. Benjamin Gray, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., predicted last fall that Service Pack 3 for XP, which will ship later this year, may play a part. Big corporate customers are still looking forward to XP SP3, and Gray said he wouldn't be surprised to see Microsoft extend mainstream support for this updated version of the operating system past April 2009 in response to pressure from the enterprise market.

If you're clinging to XP because you're waiting for that stability and compatibility, whether in Vista or in the next version of Windows, or just because you're entirely happy with XP and see no reason to change, then the product life-cycle guidelines are your friend. The combination of mainstream and extended support will give you several years of protection.

And even if you find in a couple of years that you can't get an XP version of some upgraded application, extended support means that your XP machine still has some life expectancy; you won't have to junk it just because it's become a malware magnet.

But if you're holding onto XP because you're just purely mad at Microsoft, or your PC won't run Vista anyway, then you're only buying time. Sooner or later, it's inevitable. Whether you love Vista or hate it, merely tolerate XP or won't give it up until it's pried from your cold, dead fingers, it will be gone. The product life-cycle guidelines say so.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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