Alarm clock in front of Windows XP desktop screen

The clock ticks on XP, and a tough transition looms for some agencies

The date that support ends for Windows XP has been pushed back before, so people might question whether it will really happen this time. But Microsoft says the current end date is April 8, 2014, and it’s unlikely to slip again.

Even then, of course, the end of support doesn't mean that computers running Windows XP will suddenly stop working. But no longer getting patches for security vulnerabilities is forcing even reluctant agencies to upgrade.

There are still more XP users than most people think. Net Applications, which tracks users of every OS, says that XP users still make up 37.7 percent of the global market as of May.  And although Net Applications doesn’t have separate numbers on the public sector, plenty of those XP users are in government offices, even if the agencies are in the process of upgrading to Windows 7 (most likely) or 8 (less likely).

The only Windows version with a higher install base than XP is Windows 7, at 44.8 percent. Windows 8 users are still stuck in the single digits, at 4.2 percent, behind even Vista at 4.7 percent. Incidentally, Mac OS users account for only 2.9 percent of the global market with others (mostly Linux) holding 5.6 percent.

For individual users, upgrading from XP isn’t a major undertaking, for agencies with a large number of users, it’s a daunting task. As Microsoft notes in a blog post, “If your organization has not started the migration to a modern desktop, you are late.”

The company says OS upgrades for an enterprise generally take 18 to 32 months, so agencies in transition likely are running a mix. That’s reflected in the comments made to some of the stories we’ve run over the past year.

In response to one of those articles, a reader said, "My agency is still blended between 7 and XP. Windows 8 is a huge disappointment, but by the time we get to even contemplate its deployment, the next generation of Windows will be in the works. I have the feeling that Windows 8 is just going to be something we skip like with did with Vista."

Tim from Iowa noted an institutional reluctance to change: "Our agency doesn't 'look' to upgrade anything unless forced. We are now forced to have Windows 7 which has not worked for over half of the standard or in-house applications. 32 bit or 64 bit? Still huge fragmentation and ‘XP’ mode really isn't. The backwards compatibility issues are still huge with 7 and will get a lot worse for 8. The security for 7 might be better, but most installations or permissions are different for an application depending on whether it was launched from the task bar or a desktop icon."
Aside from resistance to change, some users just like XP. One reader, responding to an article about Windows 7’s rise suggested that XP was sticking around simply because it works and could still be useful after support ends: "Lots of PCs out there not connected to the IP universe will be running XP for another decade."

But not everyone is an XP fan, either. B_Coffee wrote: "I have been stuck with XP way too long as a government user. Personally, I do not believe the cost argument at all. XP is not stable, has memory limitations, makes distributed folder sharing very difficult, and has a poor network stack. I administer my children's school network and moved to Windows 7 almost immediately after it was out. Administration of Win7 was so much easier with a massive improvement in security. The reduced cost of administering Win7 more than covered the cost of the upgrade."

That’s part of Microsoft’s argument, as well. The company’s blog post cites IDC research showing that moving up from XP will increase employee productivity, reduce maintenance costs and, over a three-year span, save money.

Regardless of other factors, the end of support, especially security patches, is forcing agencies to upgrade, and at the moment, Windows 7 appears to be the popular choice — although some agencies, such as the Defense Information Systems Agency, are getting ready for Windows 8.

When we reviewed Windows 8, we found that many of its features, like boot-level security and full-disk encryption, seemed tailored specifically for government users. However, we did note that the tiles interface was unlike anything most users had ever seen, which might serve to keep people away.

Computer makers certainly hope the world eventually embraces Windows 8. Computerworld reports that Hewlett-Packard executives at an HP users conference in Las Vegas this week were practically celebrating the end of XP. They even added a slide to their presentation that said "Goodbye XP. Hello HP." HP officials told Computerworld that the end of Windows XP support would drive people to purchase their new systems, like a fancy all-in-one unit that comes loaded up with Windows 8.

Of course, there are also proponents of open-source solutions. Reader NOPE commented on one story, saying: "Open source will always be there making sure we have forward movement in the computing industry, unlike companies like Microsoft that want it closed and narrow-minded … I am tired of being forced to use MS products at work and the government should be promoting competition not relying on one company to provide a desktop."

But user DT from the Midwest stresses that the low install base for Linux systems means there is very little support, something the government can't afford to risk: "How much do you think it will cost to re-write EVERY application the government uses so it runs on the new OS? Even a lot of commercial off the shelf software will need to be re-developed because there is no Linux version available."

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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