Windows XP: Going, going ... gone?

The approaching death of Windows XP may upset you, but it shouldn't come as a surprise. Microsoft Corp.'s product life-cycle guidelines have foretold the fate of XP since 2001. In fact, Microsoft has been killing off one version of a product as it is replaced with another for years now. But this time around, the approaching demise of XP is getting more attention than, say, the final passing of Windows 2000.

Why? For a couple of reasons: XP is the most widely used operating system on the planet, and its long-delayed successor, Windows Vista, is not proving to be universally popular. The companies that make up the enterprise market for Windows are dragging their feet about upgrading, and on the consumer side there are signs of a rebellion against Vista.
Microsoft has already made changes in its timetables. Last year, the company extended the sales life cycle -- the time during which PC manufacturers and system builders could sell computers with XP installed -- to June 30, 2008. It will stop selling XP altogether on Jan. 31, 2009. And it extended the mainstream support period for XP to April 14, 2009, in an effort to reassure customers made nervous by the long delays in shipping Vista.

The result of all this tweaking is that Microsoft will stop selling XP long before it stops supporting it. You may be able to run XP for as long as you want, but before too long you may not be able to buy a legitimate copy of XP to run.

So will there be any way to get a copy of XP after June 30? If you want to continue using XP, what problems will you face? If you buy a PC with Vista installed and decide you want XP instead, what are your options?
The product life-cycle guidelines

Microsoft's product life-cycle guidelines grew out of two sets of needs: Microsoft's need to make a profit, and its customers' (particularly enterprise customers) needs for some certainty about the products they were committing to.

The policy was an attempt at transparency, a promise that new products would be supported for a definite period and that as they aged Microsoft wouldn't just abandon them. Instead, the company would withdraw support in a series of scheduled steps that corresponded to the pace of technological change, allowing customers time to transition to newer products. (The guidelines apply to all Microsoft products, not just operating systems.)

The problem is that what sounds like a promise to some (particularly enterprise customers) can sound like a threat to others -- particularly consumers. And they're not taking it well.
This incipient consumer rebellion is a relatively new phenomenon, even in the short history of PCs. For most of the '90s, Microsoft couldn't bring out new products fast enough to satisfy customers. Computing technology was exploding, and Windows exploded along with it, from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 to Windows 98 to Windows 98 Second Edition to Windows Millennium Edition. PC sales boomed and Windows users raced to upgrade to the latest version.

But that binge left Microsoft with a huge hangover. As the new decade started, it was supporting a tangle of versions and upgrades. Then the Internet bubble burst and PC sales slowed. New products like Windows ME weren't as well received as the older ones. Microsoft needed to reduce its support liabilities and create a profit plan. The product life-cycle guidelines were the solution.
The three phases of support

First laid out in 2001 and revised in 2002 and 2004, the guidelines defined a three-phase life span and created a division between business desktop software and consumer desktop software. (In the beginning, it was easier to distinguish between business products based on the NT kernel -- like Windows NT and Windows 2000 -- and consumer products that ran on top of DOS, like Windows 98 and ME.)

* Mainstream phase: In the prime of a product's life, Microsoft provides both free and paid live support, support for warranty claims and online self-help support information. Software support and maintenance is extensive and free, with downloadable fixes and updates, service packs and freely available support for problem incidents, as well as requests for design changes and new features. Business customers may pay for additional support.
* Extended phase: Free live support and warranty support end, and free maintenance of consumer products is limited to security fixes. Self-help support information remains available online. Pay-per-incident live support remains available. Software patches and updates continue for business desktop software.
* End of life: Online support information is removed. Patches and updates cease. The product is history.

These phases were set in a schedule with definite dates and durations. Business products would be supported for 10 years -- mainstream support for five years, extended support for another five. Consumer products would get five years of mainstream support, but no extended support.

But there are two other factors in a product's life cycle -- service packs and the availability of a new version of the product:

* Service packs have a life cycle of their own. Support for each service pack ends 24 months after the next service pack release (support for Windows XP Home SP1 support, for example, ended in 2006, two years after the release of SP2 in 2004) or at the end of the product's support life cycle, whichever comes first
* When it looked like mainstream support for Windows XP might run out before the next version of Windows made it to market, Microsoft amended the support life cycle policy to promise that mainstream support would last for either five years or for two years after a successor version is released, whichever period is longer.

While the product life-cycle guidelines set very definite limits on product life spans, Microsoft has shown a willingness to move the goal posts when it gets enough pressure. When Windows XP shipped in December 2001, it was slated to be in mainstream support until December 2006. Microsoft's internal problems with getting Vista out the door finally forced the company to extend the mainstream period for XP out to April 2009, and to make some other accommodations, like eliminating the distinction between business and consumer versions, so that XP Home will have an extended support phase just like XP Pro.

The result is that next year, on April 14, 2009, Microsoft will end mainstream support for XP, and five years later, on April 8, 2014, it will stop supporting XP at all.
The other life cycle

But even before that, XP faces a major event in an entirely different life cycle, one that Microsoft has said very little about -- the sales life cycle.

The key dates for sales come much sooner than 2009 or 2014. In fact, in only a few weeks, on June 30, 2008, Microsoft will stop selling XP through its retail and reseller channels (the resellers are big manufacturers like Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. that sell PCs with Windows preinstalled).

System builders, the "white box" retailers who build PCs to order, will be given another seven months, but on Jan. 31, 2009, a couple of months before XP exits mainstream support, Microsoft will stop selling XP altogether (except for a version sold in some less-developed countries and a special arrangement for XP Home in China).

At least that's the current information. It could change. It has before.
In the past, the company has generally kept the previous version of Windows on the market for two years or so, past the introduction of a new version. That was apparently the plan for XP. When Vista finally shipped to enterprise customers in late 2006, the on-sale dates for XP were reset to January 2009.

But the new operating system didn't capture the popular imagination quite the way Microsoft had planned. Vista's heavy demands for hardware, its rocky support for applications and peripherals, and its draconian security features have left consumers less than enthusiastic. (InfoWorld.com, for example, has collected more than 100,000 signatures on a Save Windows XP petition.)

Enterprise customers have also been slower to move to Vista than to previous versions of Windows. A Microsoft reseller, CDW Corp., reported this January the results of a poll that found that a year after its release, fewer than half of businesses were using or evaluating Vista.

Big resellers, the PC manufacturers who preinstall Windows on their products, initially switched from XP to Vista when the consumer versions of the operating systems shipped in January 2007. But by April, Dell, Lenovo, and HP were once again selling machines with XP installed. An April 4 post on Dell's Web site announced the company's intention to sell XP on certain systems "until later this summer." Nearly a year later, the company is still selling XP systems.

In September 2007, Microsoft agreed to a six-month extension of XP's on-sale dates, along with license provisions for Vista's business editions that grant buyers the right to downgrade to XP.

All this leaves Microsoft in an unfamiliar position. Its major customers -- the resellers, system builders and enterprise licensees -- and a vocal part of the Windows user base all appear to be reluctant users of Vista. None of this means that Microsoft is likely to grant XP another stay of execution. But it does mean we're going to be in for an interesting few weeks leading up to June 30.

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.


XP Timeline
June 30, 2008
PC manufacturers stop selling computers with XP installed.

Jan. 31, 2009
Microsoft stops selling XP altogether.

April 14, 2009
Mainstream support (free live support and warranty support) ends. Free maintenance is limited to security fixes.

April 8, 2014
All support for XP ends.