On June 30, Microsoft will do something quite ordinary -- the company will stop selling a 7-year-old old product.
Microsoft has killed off many versions of Windows in the past. But there's a difference with the retirement of Windows XP: Most users hate its replacement, Windows Vista.
When the company shipped Vista -- which users hate precisely because of its over-complexity -- Microsoft compounded its error by segmenting out a dozen (or whatever it is) versions of Vista, creating confusion and paralysis.
Now, Microsoft is doing it again with uncertainty and complexity about when and where and which XP will be supported, not supported or semi-supported.
Reports -- rumors, really -- have surfaced this week that Microsoft plans a stay of execution for Windows XP if it's installed on a tiny computer, such as an Asus Eee PC or an Intel Atom-based device. Microsoft had previously announced that it will sell XP in "emerging markets," such as China, India or Russia. The "emerging market" XP will be a special version of Windows patronizingly called Windows XP Starter Edition. It's not clear whether tiny laptops will get regular or Starter XP.
Though to date officially silent about the "ultraportable" exception to the June 30 termination, Microsoft statements in the past have blurred the company's plans about laptop and desktop versions. A company spokesman told Computerworld weeks ago that "OEMs will continue to sell XP through June 30th 2008 and system builders will be able to sell XP through January 2009 as they cater to the small business markets. In emerging markets where XP Starter Edition is sold, it will still be available through June 30th, 2010."
So whether Microsoft will allow you to buy your preferred operating system depends on who and where you are. And it's still not clear. Can I find a company that calls itself a "system builder," and buy from them? Will I have to be part of the "small business market" to get it? If I buy a laptop from China, can I get it with XP Starter Edition? Is the superportable rumor even true?
Why Killing XP Is a Fatal Error
What do the tiny-laptop market and the "emerging markets" have in common? In both cases, customers have demonstrated an eagerness to use Linux, in part because it's cheaper and in part because it's simpler.
So let's be clear about Microsoft's decision here: Microsoft is choosing to maintain XP in markets where the preferred alternative to XP is Linux, rather than Vista.
But what about the millions of people currently using XP? What is their preferred alternative? Microsoft's assumption is that they'll choose Vista. I'm here to challenge that assumption.
In my own case, both my desktop and laptop run Windows XP, and I have an Asus Eee PC that runs Linux. If I choose to buy another system, and XP is unavailable to me at the time of purchase, I'll be forced to choose from one of four alternatives: 1) Linux; 2) Mac OS X; 3) Vista; and 4) an illegal copy of XP. For me, options 3 and 4 aren't even up for consideration. I'll choose either Linux or a Mac. Just for my own peace of mind, I might be tempted to convert my remaining systems to my new choice, and abandoned Windows altogether.
But if XP is available, on the other hand, I'll buy it. Microsoft will get the money. I'll continue to invest in Windows applications, and if Microsoft gets Windows 7 right, I'll upgrade to that.
Isn't maintaining XP better for Microsoft than pushing people away from Windows altogether?
By sticking to its June 30 cut-off date for XP, Microsoft is betting its operating systems golden goose on the unlikely prediction that all those customers who are still clinging to XP will choose Vista as their second choice, rather than Anything But Vista.
This is a bet Microsoft will lose. The trickle of defections away from Windows will become a flood, and by the time the company ships Windows 7 they will have needlessly lost millions of loyal customers forever.
What Microsoft Should Do
Microsoft is already bleeding market share even with the general availability of Windows XP. Despite this catastrophe, Microsoft is currently on track to cancel the only version of Windows that people actually like.
It's time for Microsoft to announce that Windows XP will be made available to anyone who wants it on all PC types until 2010, or until Windows 7, whichever comes first.
Microsoft needs to stop worrying so much about saving Vista, and start worrying about saving Microsoft.