How Do You Solve a Problem Like Windows XP?

Just two short months from now, Microsoft's dinosaur-like but functional operating system will be all but extinct in the technology giant's eyes. Why aren't organizations upgrading—and how could Microsoft have done things differently?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, your technology has an expiration date. But sometimes, that expiration date is forced upon you.

We’re a little less than two months away from the end of an extended support deadline Microsoft put on its Windows XP software—an operating system that remains hugely popular in the corporate world, although the software in its original form predates fundamental technologies such as social media, HTML5, touch-screen smartphones, even the iPod. WiFi wasn’t even a mainstream technology when XP launched in August 2001; most people couldn’t live without it these days.

Despite the increasingly dire warnings coming from Redmond, Windows XP persists in the tech world as a relic, but one that’s so fundamentally stable (though far from secure, don’t get me wrong) that nothing’s really forcing you to upgrade—in much the same way that there’s nothing really stopping you from driving a Toyota Camry made during the Clinton administration just because you can buy a Tesla Model S.

Some people see the Model S as the car of the future, a new breed of automobile worthy of all the awards. But for a lot of folks, it’s more than they need, with a price burden to boot.

That’s what Microsoft is up against right now.

Software as Commodity

One thing that got me thinking about this was a blog post, written by the company’s Brandon LeBlanc, essentially pleading with tech-savvy users to convince their less-savvy friends to upgrade their machines.

“As a reader of this blog, it’s unlikely you are running Windows XP on your PC,” he wrote. “However, you may know someone who is and have even served as their tech support.”

But a good look at the comments shows many people largely critical of the company’s Windows 8 platform and a few folks noting that what was being asked of them was pretty burdensome (the upgrade process requires people to back up their data, as the upgrade wipes the hard drive entirely).

“To be honest with you, the type of operating system running on our PCs is a low to very low priority within the realm of running our business. A necessary maintenance task to perform,” one business owner wrote. “As the owner, I want to make it as easy as possible with the least business impact.”

That statement by the business owner, who noted how difficult it was to purchase copies of the older-but-still-popular Windows 7 (check out this volume licensing page and tell me if you can figure it out in less than a minute), reflects an important truism for organizations at large: There often has to be a business reason for making a change to something seen as a commodity.

“Commodity” is a painful word for companies like Microsoft, but it’s one with a lot of truth. Many companies that haven’t bothered to upgrade by now are likely to see consistency and stability as their key concerns. They may upgrade if the cost is reasonable and the process is easy enough, but there’s nothing forcing them to do so.

Based on Windows XP’s still-solid market share, it seems there are a lot of people like this out there.

Aim for the Clouds

Recently, I helped my wife set up VPN access on her personal computer. It took a few minutes to set up and required a software download, but it worked perfectly—loading a Windows desktop that allowed her to access the work apps she needed.

Her personal computer is a Chromebook, and the software download was a free extension that works on any version of Chrome.

This isn’t where corporate IT is as a whole, but I wonder if this is where it’s going—where the vessel for the computing matters less than what you can actually do with the dang thing.

By forcing millions of users to pay to upgrade computers they’re perfectly happy with, is Microsoft solving the wrong problem? There’s a good chance they are—and the crazy part is that they already have the right solution to get around this. Windows Azure, its cloud and virtualization platform, could be the perfect way for the company to put modern apps inside rickety old Dells from the Bush administration. And Office 365—which is driving much of the Azure’s platform’s recent financial success—proves that software as a service (SaaS) is a model that makes sense for Microsoft.

I can see it now: Offer free upgrades to Windows 7 or Windows 8 with the purchase of a year’s subscription to Office 365. And for machines too slow for a modern OS, create a piece of middleware—call it Windows 7 Core or something like that—that allows users to use the machine essentially the way you would my wife’s Chromebook. These companies weren’t going to upgrade their machines anyway, so if you can win them over by offering them the operating system the way you might an AOL user circa 1997—with the cost buried on the back end—Microsoft could solve the problem of upkeep and security threats that are driving the deadline in the first place.

Microsoft has made a killing over the years selling the business and consumer world razors. But everyone already has a razor. Now’s a good time for them to start selling some blades.

Anyway, let’s turn this back on your association’s IT department—what sort of issues drive your upgrade decisions? And if you’re still rocking Windows XP, why is that? I’d love to hear your take in the comments.

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!