Die, XP, Die! Why the Operating System from 2001 Won’t Go Away

Rob Pegoraro
Tech Columnist
April 8, 2014

Xavier Caballe via Flickr

How can we miss Windows XP if it won’t go away? 

Microsoft is finally pushing this operating system out the airlock after years of ongoing support and constant updates. But the long-promised end of updates for XP today has yet to dislodge this 2001-vintage release from a dismayingly high number of computers.

StatCounter put its worldwide market share at 18.6 percent in March—and no, Americans can’t blame backwards foreigners for that, as XP’s share in the U.S. is a full 15 percent. NetMarketShare, using different methods that factor in more computers that rarely go online, found XP on 27.7 percent of computers worldwide. 

Good at the time
When Windows XP made its debut on Oct. 25, 2001, personal computing was a different game. We counted storage costs in dollars per gigabyte, not pennies. “Cloud computing” meant hoarding attached documents in a Hotmail or (ahem) Yahoo Mail account. The closest thing to a social network was the buddy list in AOL Instant Messenger.

But even just five years in, XP had aged poorly. Its security had been revealed to be so thoroughly broken that Microsoft had to ship the equivalent of a new version of Windows in the form of the massive Service Pack 2 download

After another decade of security fixes, XP remains fundamentally insecure. Any one app can have the run of the whole system. It still needs work.

Remember, if your XP box gets hacked and enlisted into a botnet that spams people with viruses, your preference for a vintage OS suddenly becomes everybody’s problem.

But the time is over
Why has this fossilized release stuck around so long? In part, it’s because when Microsoft had its big first chance to ship a compelling sequel to XP, it delivered Vista instead. And then it made the next update, Windows 7, a dicey upgrade from XP.

If you’ve long since repressed those memories, take yourself back: Vista suffered from having the most visible part of its overdue security upgrades be the “User Account Control” are-you-sure? dialog that popped up every time you installed an app—or maybe just looked at the computer the wrong way. Then Microsoft decided to crack down on unauthorized Windows installations—except that its anti-piracy checks locked out law-abiding users too.

Oh, and many machines built for XP couldn’t run Vista’s slick new “Aero Glass” interface. In fact, until October 2010, Microsoft had to let manufacturers keep shipping the old XP operating system on the underpowered “netbook” laptops that had hit the market.

Windows 7 fixed many of those things, but Microsoft made upgrading from XP to 7 something to dread: In some scenarios, Windows 7’s installer would nuke your existing setup, leaving you to reload all your apps, settings and data from a backup.

Migrating apps and other products
Some businesses that had committed to Windows in general found their way blocked, too. The worst-case scenario involved companies and government agencies that had custom software written for XP. They became stuck there. In some cases, upgrading to a newer flavor of Windows would have been “a function of spending millions of dollars to rewrite the software,” Intel Security vice president Candace Worley said at a conference in Washington last week.

Similar migration woes plagued consumers. For example, if you used an older version of Intuit’s QuickBooks software to manage a home business, going from XP to Windows 7 would mean buying a new release, even if you didn’t need any of its new features. And just a few weeks ago, I had to enlist a Mac to get some footage off a neighbor’s 2003 Sony camcorder, because Sony had not shipping post-XP driver software for USB video transfer.

(Meanwhile, Apple has gotten its developers to leap through so many hoops—rewriting apps for PowerPC chips in the mid ‘90s, rewriting them again for OS X around the turn of the century, then a third time for Intel processors.)

For some users, the easiest upgrade is to just get a new computer. As ZDNet’s longtime Windows blogger Ed Bott wrote in an e-mail, there’s financial logic to that: “For many of them the cost of an upgrade (including the technical help to complete the upgrade) would be equal to or larger than the cost of a new Windows 7 or 8 system.”

But will all these long-time XP users be game to pay? I am betting not. I am also betting that in January of 2020, we’ll see about as much angst when Microsoft terminates support for Windows 7.

Read more about the end of Windows XP:
Seven Safety Tips For People Sticking With Windows XP
Still on Windows XP? Here’s Some Bad Advice