China has a massive Windows XP problem

By the time of XP's retirement in April, around 10% of all U.S. computers will be running the OS; in China, 65% of companies will do so

The Chinese are going to have a very, very hard time kicking the Windows XP habit.

The deadline for the retirement of Microsoft's most successful operating system ever is eight months from tomorrow: April 8, 2014. That's the day when the Redmond, Wash. company is to deliver the last XP security update.

The problem is that a significant chunk of the world's PCs continue to run the aged OS, and with just months to go, a seemingly impossible task faces those users: Getting off the 12-year-old XP and onto something newer.

According to analytics company Net Applications, 37.2% of the globe's personal computers ran Windows XP last month. If Microsoft's estimate of 1.4 billion Windows PCs worldwide is accurate, XP's share translates into nearly 570 million machines.

But while much digital ink has been spilled on the impending deadline -- what one popular Windows blogger called a "coming Windows XP Apocalypse" on Tuesday -- the truth is that some countries have a bigger headache than others.

In the U.S., for example, 16.4% of all personal computers ran Windows XP in July, or about one in six, Net Applications' data showed.

But in China, where XP remains king, 72.1% of the country's computers relied on the soon-to-retire operating system last month, or nearly three out of every four systems. In any XP doomsday scenario, that means China is in a position four times more precarious than the U.S.

And it will get worse for China, not better, as the remaining eight months flip off the calendar.

If one assumes that recent trends in XP's decline continue, then its share in the U.S. will drop to between 9.1% and 11.1% by April 2014 (depending on whether the forecast is based on the last three months or the last six months, respectively).

China, however, is in a tougher spot because while it's been shedding Windows XP at about the same clip as the U.S., the country's much larger current share puts it at a severe disadvantage. By April 2014, XP will still be on between 65.2% and 65.7% of its personal computers. Eight months from now, China's XP problem will be six or seven times bigger than the U.S.'s.

The hand-wringing about XP's stubbornness, then, is largely overdone when talking about the U.S. But it's on target when it comes to cases like China's.

Theories about the staying power of XP have been proposed by almost every industry analyst and blogging pundit. Some cited the operating system's longevity -- it's been proven and tested by a dozen years of use -- while others pointed out that businesses hold on to XP because of internal, custom or niche applications that would cost a fortune to upgrade, even if they were available on other platforms. And China often was singled out for its propensity for piracy and a resulting apathy toward patches in general.

The share of China's personal computers running the aging Windows XP dwarfs that in the U.S. (Data: Net Applications.)

Some people may never upgrade for the simple reason that their Windows XP PC is their last PC. When it dies, so does their interest in traditional personal computers. Instead, they'll just use their tablets all of the time rather than just part of the time.

Migration experts have opined that the easy upgrades have been done, and what's left are the much more expensive ones. Many consumers simply can't comprehend why there are laggards at all, ignoring the economics of shifting hundreds, even thousands of systems from one OS to another.

But the truth is that people are deserting Windows XP.

In the U.S., XP's rate of decline over the last six months has been 60% higher than the global average. Over the last three months, it's been 116% higher. The majority have fled to Windows 7, which in July powered half of all personal computers in the U.S.

Even China has been making strides, with XP reduction rates equal to, or in the case of its six-month average, greater than the U.S.'s. A quarter of the country's computers now run Windows 7, Net Applications estimated.

But the large numbers of PCs destined to be running XP next April has prompted speculation -- in some cases, running back years -- that Microsoft will back down, perhaps at the last minute, and continue patching at least the worst vulnerabilities in Windows XP.

That hope stems from the numbers. In the U.S., the 9% or 10% or 11% of all computers likely to be running XP next April represents millions: If the Computer Industry Almanac's 2012 estimate of 310 million in-place systems is used, XP will be on at least 28 million PCs when the retirement clock reaches midnight.

Microsoft's given no hint that it will back down. Even as recently as last month, during its Worldwide Partner Conference, it touted the sales opportunities in helping customers ditch XP, claiming the migration was a potential windfall worth $32 billion.

Most analysts have concluded that there's little use thinking Microsoft will blink. John Pescatore, at the time an analyst with Gartner, put it best in a December 2012 interview: "I think they have to draw a line in the sand," said Pescatore. "They've supported XP longer than anything else."

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

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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