It's often been observed that Microsoft's biggest competitor is itself, but I'm starting to wonder if it might also be its biggest ENEMY. The company has a great-selling, big-market-share desktop OS in Windows XP, and it's going to refuse to sell it anymore? C'mon, tell me that this announcement that Microsoft's done selling XP after June is just a strategically timed, well-placed, targeted-disinformation rumor created by Apple.
As I've related in earlier columns, I personally like Windows Vista and have had good experience with it, but that doesn't mean I think that Microsoft ought to shove it down people's throats. Telling people, "we won't sell any new copies of XP after June of this year," is nothing short of suicidally insane (and that was the kindest phrase that I could come up with without sacrificing accuracy). Let's look at why.
First, let's consider compatibility. While I've written in the past that I believe that some folks have vastly exaggerated the number of XP-compatible devices and applications that won't work on Vista, the fact is that number isn't zero, nor is it anywhere near zero. If someone's business depends on a $1000 scanner whose only drivers work on XP, what would Microsoft have that business do when forced to go to Vista for its new systems – spend another grand on a newer scanner whose only virtue is that its vendor created Vista drivers for it but was either too lazy or too venal to create Vista drivers for the older (but still useful) scanner? I wonder how much perfectly good hardware will be junked and more hardware bought just because that hardware's owners can no longer purchase XP… and considering the energy and materials required to make computer hardware, that doesn't seem very "green," does it?
Beyond the question of hardware compatibility is the issue of software compatibility. How many businesses rely on some cobbled-together, home-grown application that's a mite clunky but is essential to the running of the business -- applications that perhaps are part of the small number that will never run on Vista? Oh, wait, I know the answer – SoftGrid. Nice product, but you can't buy it, you have to rent it, and even then only if you've got at least 25 users. And have I mentioned how easy it is for the average small business owner to set up?
Second, there's the "what are you thinking???" factor. XP's a winner, for goodness' sake. People clearly like XP (even if they do seem to be liking it a lot better now that they've seen Vista). Businesses buy the thing by the bushel. It's the most prevalent desktop OS on the planet, which is pretty impressive when you realize that most Linux versions are free. Dropping a strong seller like this would be like McDonalds discontinuing the Big Mac, Toyota shuttering its Camry factories or, heck, Coca-Cola dropping Coke for a new-and-improved version that no one likes.
Finally, people know XP. It lets them get their jobs done. They know how to support it in their current computing environment and they have no interest in buying and learning a new OS, particularly not at a time when the economy's in the tank and businesses have to wonder if they'll be around in three years. Many firms choose as a matter of policy to run just one OS across all of their desktops to save money. Microsoft knows that very well, and so forcing purchasers of new hardware to also get Vista means that those folks will either have to upgrade all of their systems to Vista -- a very bad idea, as Vista's only a pleasant experience on modern hardware -- or accept having to support multiple desktop OSs.
The last time Microsoft did this was when it forced people off Windows NT 4.0 workstations onto Windows 2000 or XP workstations. That was unpleasant behavior then, but at least there were significant, paradigm-shifting improvements in those frog-marched upgrades. It might be time to realize that the desktop OS market is maturing, and that it may well be reasonable to expect that a mature OS such as XP could have a useful lifetime of 15, 20, or more years.
And heck, it might be good business sense to realize that forcing people to leave an OS they're comfortable with might make them decide that yes, it is time to move to a different OS – like, say, Leopard. Think about it, Mr. Ozzie.