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Microsoft Will Not Extend XP Lifecycle Again: Here's What's Really Happening

I published this a moment ago on WinInfo, but it’s a big enough deal that it should be on the SuperSite as well, so what the heck...

Microsoft Will Not Extend XP Lifecycle Again: Here's What's Really Happening

You may have read a news story--a rumor, really--recently claiming that Microsoft has logging calls to its support lines to determine whether it should extend the lifecycle of Windows XP, which is set to disappear from retail shelves and from consumer PCs after June 30. The rumor--which originated at a tech enthusiast blog--is completely untrue, Microsoft says. But it's just part of a wider range of misinformation that is muddying the waters for Windows users. It's time to send in the cleaner.

Here's what's really happening.

First of all, Microsoft's official lifecycle policy for operating systems states that the company will ship each Windows version for four years after it becomes generally available. In the case of Windows XP, which became generally available in October 2001, Microsoft would normally have stopped shipping XP to customers in late 2005, but that was a year before its successor, Windows Vista, shipped. So Microsoft extended the sales deadline on XP to occur one year after the general availability of Vista, or in January 2008. You may have noticed that that date, too, has passed: That's because Microsoft had extended XP's availability again, this time to June 30, 2008.

On that last day of June, a few things are going to happen. But many things are not going to happen. For example, Microsoft isn't going to "turn off" product activation on July 1, 2009, forcing XP users to upgrade to Vista. In fact, the company told me this week that it has not plans, whatsoever, to turn off XP product activation at any date in the future.

Also, you may have heard that Microsoft will "end support" of XP after June 30. That claim was shocking to Microsoft corporate vice president Mike Nash, who told me this week that the company just shipped XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), and didn't intend to only support that major update for seven weeks. "We're going to support XP through April 2014," he said, laughing. "That's a twelve-and-a-half year life cycle!" Nash noted that few companies provide this kind of support for their software products. "If you look at the life cycle of XP compared to that of a person, XP would just be entering the 7th grade now."

Windows XP isn't disappearing this year either. When June 30 comes and goes, Microsoft's customers will still be able to get XP if they really want it. But this isn't some special concession that was made specifically for this Windows version, nor is it a new policy: Microsoft has allowed its customers to buy a license to the current Windows version and "downgrade" to one of the previous versions for several years now. In fact, if a customer was "really feeling nostalgic," Nash said, they could downgrade to Windows 2000 if they wanted.

Here's how downgrading works. Through a process offered to its enterprise and small business customers, Microsoft will sell you a license to Windows Vista Business, Enterprise, or Ultimate and allow you to install Windows XP Professional instead. The downgrade option is typically used by businesses that are buying a few new PCs and don't want a mix of new and old Windows versions, and they can "upgrade" to the Vista version they originally purchased at any time. Downgrading is available to consumers as well, however. Because Microsoft's PC maker partners qualify for the business-oriented downgrade, they can pass along the downgrade to their own customers too.

"Some people have positioned downgrading as a loophole or 'secret'," Nash told me. "It's neither. It's a well-documented and known policy that's been in place for a long, long time. This is not a new issue: Some people just want the old version. But that's always been true."

Finally, the recent emergence of a growing but niche market for ultra-low-cost PCs (ULCPCs), including portable machines sometimes called Netbooks and desktop machines sometimes called Nettops, has caused Microsoft to extend the licensing of Windows XP Home Edition only, and only on these devices, for one more year. The iCabal--vocal and fanatical Apple followers who cheer the company's anti-Vista "Switcher" ads--have claimed that XP's continued use on these types of devices is yet another signal that Vista has failed. That's ridiculous, Nash says, noting that Microsoft is just being pragmatic. "These are low-performance and low-capability machines aimed at first-time PC buyers in emerging markets, not a way to continue getting XP," he said. As Microsoft had argued to me previously, the fact that their latest OS won't run well on the minimal resources of an ULCPC says more about those machines than it does about Vista.

Put simply, if you really want XP, you'll be able to get it after June 30, and it will be supported by Microsoft through April 2014. By that time, of course, Microsoft will probably have already shipped Windows 8, a Windows version three times removed from XP. Perhaps by that time, misguided calls for XP's continuation will have faded into the murky past, where they belong.

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