Friday, April 25, 2008

Microsoft's XP Problem

Microsoft’s XP Problem

Microsoft has a serious problem on its hands.

How do you get rid of an operating system that nobody wants to abandon?

For many years now, Microsoft users have been working with the Windows XP operating system. Sure it was buggy at first. Pretty much every operating system that has been cranked out by the House That Gates Built has had bugs and a plethora of required security fixes waiting for users the minute that welcome screen appears for the first time.

But it’s been over a year since Microsoft has come out with their brand-new operating system called Windows Vista and the response has been pretty much met with disgust. Not only are people NOT ready for a new operating system, but they are DEMANDING that they be allowed to continue to purchase and install Windows XP. Computer retailers like Dell are still offering computers with XP installed instead of Vista. Worse yet, big companies, which are usually the backbone to computer sales, are categorically REFUSING not only to install Vista, but many of them have also REFUSED to upgrade their browsers to Internet Explorer 7!

Even worse, Microsoft has been forced to push back their end-date of their support for Windows XP to April of 2009, and quite possibly even later than that.

I’m sure the Microsoft geeks and suits are pulling the remaining hairs out of their balding heads trying to figure out why. After all, weren’t these the same geeks and nerds that were complaining about XP being buggy? Sure they were! Wouldn’t they relish the new security features that are incorporated into Vista? Maybe.

But there’s more to this than just hesitation about a new system. Microsoft has really handled the Vista rollout in a way that has done the product and themselves a huge disservice.

Let’s take it by the numbers…

Bad Minimums – When Microsoft cranked out the specs for computer retailers and manufacturers to determine if their product is “Ready for Vista”, they set the bar TOO low. Sure many computers COULD run Vista. It would be slower than molasses and you wouldn’t be able to add any other programs that would use up memory on top of the basic operation of the program, but it COULD run on Vista.

As a result, there were plenty of computer systems where even the salespeople were telling you NOT to buy because it barely operated with Vista on it as opposed to XP.

Basic rule, boys and girls… EVERY new operating system demands more and more memory, more and more hard drive space, more and more processor power, and more and more of pretty much everything else a computer would use. Microsoft or Apple, it doesn’t matter. If you want a bare-bones operating system, switch to Linux. Otherwise, consider every new OS a bloated monster.

Microsoft’s “minimum” requirements were simply TOO LOW. They needed to shoot for OPTIMAL requirements, not MINIMAL.

FORCED to go Cold Turkey – This was actually a problem going back to Internet Explorer 7, which they declared to be a REQUIRED CRITICAL upgrade. Their intention was to FORCE people to upgrade, whether they wanted to or not.

The same principle was used with the roll-out of Vista. They told the retailers that whatever leftover computer was in stock HAD to be upgraded to Vista, whether it would run or not, and then they were planning on shutting off support for XP only six months after the roll-out before the social pressure forced them to change that.

This has been an EXTREMELY BAD idea, and it is probably one of the chief reasons for resistance to getting people to upgrade both to Vista and to IE7. People don’t like being FORCED to upgrade unless it involves something like a security patch or updated drivers. Telling people that they need a whole new Internet browser or a whole new operating system and calling that a REQUIRED upgrade is simply demanding too much.

Bear in mind that some companies are STILL using computers that are running on the Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows 98 operating systems, and even a few are using Windows ME! They’re not changing because they’re afraid of change, they’re staying with a particular operating system because that what they are using right now WORKS for them. Maybe they have specialty programs that they can’t use with an upgraded operating system. Maybe it’s just not feasible for them to change computers and upgrade to the latest-greatest toys. This is where Microsoft SHOULD be encouraging people to upgrade, and instead they are simply being told “do this because WE SAID SO.”

Bad Legacy – One of THE most annoying things about game systems is their lack of compatibility with previous systems. You spend money on a game system like an Xbox or Playstation 2 and they produce a whole plethora of games designed for it, and then they come up with Xbox360 or Playstation 3, and you discover that NONE of the games you had spent all of that money on work on the new game systems! That’s why sales of Playstation 2 actually beat out all of the “new” game systems back in 2006.

Well the same premise applies to upgrades in operating systems. The key requirement for businesses to upgrade is to make sure that the new item works with their current applications. You want to make sure that your call center software or your modem or your database or your printer works with the new operating system or platform. That’s why businesses continue to use outdated operating systems, because it would cost them a lot more to upgrade than just changing the programs or even changing the computer. You’re messing with the things that make their businesses functional!

Sure some operating systems were really just glorified bug fixes. For instance, Windows 98 and Windows ME were both glorified bug fixes for Windows 95, and Windows 2000 was a glorified bug fix for Windows NT. But with Windows XP you weren’t just fixing bugs, you were abandoning the MS DOS framework and embracing the NT framework. You were also changing file compression standards to the new FAT32 system. And Vista changed things even more. We’re talking not just some extra features and some new Graphical User Interface goodies. The whole operation of the program changed with Vista.

And this is where Microsoft has fallen flat, both in XP AND in Vista. They really don’t provide adequate support for backward compatibility and instead DEMAND that any applications that use their new operating system have brand new drivers for those applications. So if you have a 5-year old monitor that was made obsolete by the manufacturer, it won’t work on Vista because you lack the required drivers for it and Vista refuses to recognize the ones for XP.

Sure, Windows XP set up a “shell compatibility” system. It would mimic an earlier operating system for certain programs, but it would be just that… a mimic. It would be a shell, so it wouldn’t really integrate into other systems. So if you have a custom database program that needs to work with your email service, it really wouldn’t function in this “shell” environment. And you couldn’t guarantee that it would work in every situation either. I have tried the shell environment on some of my older programs and they really didn’t work the same.

One of the larger groups that complained about this incompatibility were the massive multiplayer online gaming community. Game-players for popular MMORPGs like Worlds of Warcraft and City of Heroes that got themselves new computers or upgraded their operating systems suddenly found their paid-subscription services no longer working because they lacked the needed drivers for Vista. Not exactly the kind of news you want to hear when you’re rolling out a new operating system and you want everyone to sign up on it.

This is something that Microsoft really needs to work on in addition to getting the bugs fixed with their new systems.

And finally…

New Corporate Security Rules – Corporate accountability! This is probably the biggest stickler to getting companies upgraded to Vista, and also one that Microsoft probably never imagined they would get caught up in.

There are plenty of reasons why corporate accountability is such a big issue.

You can start with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the all-encompassing federal law that REQUIRES that corporations sacrifice whole forests so they can document everything that they do, including their software testing. Companies now have to hire auditors to make sure that everything is in compliance, and auditors expect a full accounting of every program on the workstations, who has access to the company’s servers, and how they access it, and why they need to.

Add to that the push from software companies like Adobe for copyright and licensing accountability. The bean counters need to make sure that every computer uses a program has a license for it and can trace the purchase of that license.

And then throw on top of that the rise of identity theft and security breaches either through hackers or stolen equipment, or even through malicious software that gets downloaded. You know that “really cute program” you found on the Internet? You know, the one you got from a friend, that you forwarded over to another friend? It’s not that “cute” when it ends up putting a hole in your company’s server firewall and sending the server’s IP address and your username and password to a hacker in Hong Kong.

Put all of those things together and you have a corporate environment that is outright HOSTILE to any kind of change, much less one that Microsoft expects should be done immediately.

Microsoft’s biggest problem is they have an unrealistic expectation of change for their customer base, be it corporate or the personal user. Most people are not quick to make changes to their system, and not everyone is eager in getting the “latest-greatest” as they used to. Changing an operating system or changing a web browser is not the same as installing a security patch, and it should not be treated as such.

Getting people off an operating system is not something that can be done in a matter of a few months or even a year. We’re talking a process that takes YEARS to test, diagnose, test, fix, and test again. As much as the corporate executives would love to speed up that process, it’s not as feasible as it used to be.


David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in the greater Atlanta area. He is a longtime computer user and has been involved with computers since the 1980’s.

This article can be distributed freely provided that it is unaltered and all proper credit is given to the author.

2008 – Get Brutal Productions