Windows XP: Why It’s Time for Small Businesses to Say Goodbye

Ten years ago this week, Microsoft finished up work on a new operating system called Windows XP and shipped it off to PC makers. If you’d told Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer back then that XP would still be the dominant version of Windows a decade later, they would have mocked you.

So would have most Windows watchers, including me. Everybody knew that a major new version of the Microsoft’s desktop OS came along every two or three years. Everybody knew that even hidebound stragglers eventually upgraded.

Bitten By Vista, Shy About Windows 7

Everybody, it turned out, was wrong. According to research firm Net Applications, just under 50 percent of PCs on the Internet run Windows XP. That’s nearly twice as many as the number using the current version of Microsoft’s operating system, Windows 7, which hit the market in October of 2009. XP usage is slipping, but far more slowly than anyone expected.

Even today, I know more than a few small business owners who have no plans whatsoever to give up Windows XP.

How did it come to this? Two words: Windows Vista. The successor to Windows XP, unveiled in January 2007 after multiple delays, just didn’t work well enough, especially at first. Even after Microsoft released updates that made Vista less glitchy, it remained short on compelling features. And some of the features it did have felt like arguments for sticking with XP. (User Account Control, a security safeguard which tried to protect users from rogue software, was a jarring, confusing irritant.)

In the Windows Vista era, many businesses and consumers sensibly ignored Microsoft’s upgrade drumbeat. Many of them continued doing so even after the company released Windows 7. (The fact that Microsoft provides no way to install Windows 7 on top of XP and preserve your current apps and settings hasn’t helped. Unless you use LapLink’s PCMover utility, you need to rebuild your system from scratch if you want to upgrade.)

Windows XP: Not Dead Yet!

Microsoft, of course, relies on sales of Windows upgrades to drive its massive profits. So it’s been trying to wean the world off XP for years. It stopped selling shrink-wrapped copies long ago, no longer lets PC makers sell machines with XP preinstalled, and officially discontinued most support for the operating system in 2008.

But the company hasn’t quite driven a stake through XP’s heart. It says that it intends to provide basic support and security updates for Windows XP Service Pack 3, the current version, until April 8, 2014. And businesses that buy PCs with some versions of Windows 7 have the right to “downgrade” those computers to XP.

My feelings about Windows XP’s amazing staying power are conflicted. On one hand, I understand why small businesses instinctively stick with stuff that’s comfortably familiar. I admire their skepticism about overhyped, underperforming products such as Windows Vista. I think it’s smart that so many companies delay buying new technology until the most serious bugs have been discovered and fixed.

Why the Future Is a Windows 7 World

Here’s the thing, though: Windows 7 is pretty great. It’s the operating system that Vista should have been, and it’s well worth the cost (the Professional Edition upgrade lists for $199.99). Holding onto Windows XP until something better came along was a savvy move; holding onto it forever is not.

A few key points in favor of Windows 7 and against XP:

Windows 7 has a superior interface. Once you’ve acclimated yourself — which shouldn’t take all that long — you can work far more efficiently. Unlike Windows XP, it mostly stays out of your face. (You can prevent apps from distracting you with those annoying pop-up balloon alerts, for instance.) Its Taskbar lets you juggle apps and documents far more efficiently. The built-in search feature is more powerful, faster, and more pleasant than the one in XP. A slicker design and better font rendering makes everything easier on the eyeballs. I could go on for a few thousand more words — and did when I reviewed the operating system in 2009.

Windows 7 is much more secure. Businesses that are still smitten with Windows XP forget that it’s a notoriously insecure piece of software. Microsoft is still creating security updates for XP Service Pack 3, but that’s like trying to patch up an ancient, leaky boat. A recent Microsoft survey reported that Windows XP SP3 computers suffer an average of 15.9 infections by viruses and other malware per 1,000 machines. PCs running the 64-bit version of Windows 7 are infected only 2.5 times per 1,000 machines.

Windows 7 packs 64-bit power. Any PC you’ve bought recently probably packs a potent multicore 64-bit processor from Intel or AMD. It’ll work with Windows XP, but XP is only a 32-bit operating system — which means that your PC won’t run as fast as it could, especially for tasks that involve intense number crunching, such as working with giant spreadsheets and editing video. Windows 7 is available in a 64-bit edition that lets cutting-edge PCs live up to their full potential.

Windows 7 is compatible with the future. For now, most third-party software and hardware supports Windows XP. Given that it’s still the most popular operating system on the planet, that only makes sense. But the mustier XP gets, the more likely you are to find software that won’t work with it. Already, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 — by far the company’s best Web browser to date — is available only for Windows 7 and Vista.

One other argument for upgrading to Windows 7 now: Nearly two years after its release, it’s a reasonably mature operating system. Microsoft released a Service Pack 1 update in February that rolled up all the fixes and tweaks it’s pushed out to date. The chances of you encountering any Vista-like crippling problems are small, and an optional feature called Windows XP Mode is available in case of emergency.

I realize that I’m not going to persuade all of you to dump XP this moment. If you keep using it, however, I beseech you: Please, please make sure you’ve upgraded to Service Pack 3 and that you install new fixes as they come along. That’ll make XP as good as it can possibly be, although it still won’t be nearly as good as Windows 7.

And even if you conclude that you’re happy with Windows XP, you need to plan now for life without it. You certainly shouldn’t use an operating system that’s unprotected from new security attacks, which means you’ll want to leave XP behind before Microsoft cuts off security updates in April of 2014.

By then, the current version of Windows won’t be Windows 7 — it’ll likely be Windows 8. Microsoft isn’t saying when it plans to release that version, but it’ll almost certainly be available by the fall of 2012. I wouldn’t be stunned if it arrives several months earlier than that.

We don’t know too much about Windows 8 yet other than that it sports a rather iPad-like touch-screen interface as well as one that looks more like the Windows we know; Microsoft says it’ll have much more to say at its BUILD conference next month. Stay tuned for news.

And hey, if you remain an XP holdout for now, telling people that you’ve been waiting for Windows 8 all along is a convenient excuse that might also prove to be a rational strategy.