Electronic Design

Holding Out For Windows 7: A Wise Move?

While most businesses have soundly rejected Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system and are tenaciously hanging on to Windows XP until the company comes out with a better OS, the day of reckoning approaches. The reason: Microsoft drove another stake into XP’s heart in April when it officially ended “mainstream support” for the OS. This means your warranty on XP is void. It also means that if you want support on XP other than basic patches, or basic security upgrades, you’ll have to pay Microsoft under a separate “extended support” agreement.

Got an unusual problem you’re having with XP that you need resolved? That’ll cost you. Need to add a new device to your system that isn’t currently supported by XP? You’ll have to pony up for that, too. Even worse, Microsoft may return the bad news that XP will never support a new device or new software application you’ve recently added.

It’s a nasty jolt that has many in the electronic design industry once again re-evaluating their commitment to XP and wondering if they really can skip Vista altogether and simply wait for Microsoft’s next upgrade, Windows 7—due out the first quarter of 2010. Not surprisingly, the case for hanging tough with XP ‘til they pry it from your cold, dead hands is still very strong. Despite numerous attempts by the Redmond goliath to convince businesses otherwise, Vista is still very much a flop. Initial reports that the operating system was slower than XP, featured draconian, productivity sapping security provisions, and would not work with a raft of hardware and software have stuck.

Even today, less than 10% of all businesses in North America and Europe use Vista, and 71% of those businesses still use and swear by XP, according a January 2009 report from Benjamin Gray, an IT analyst with market research firm Forrester (www.forrester.com). Indeed, business support for sticking with XP has been so strong that Microsoft still grants some major computer makers the right to continue to sell new XP PCs right alongside machines sporting Vista. Those same computer makers also have the ability to woo buyers leery of Vista to “downgrade” to XP on any Vista machine they buy. Talk about a public relations nightmare.

Moreover, the “hold-out” mentality has been further buttressed by the numerous, positive oohs and ahhs surfacing about the first beta version of Windows 7, released earlier this year. The evaluation by Matt Hartley, a reviewer for Lockergnome, a highly respected industry insider publication, is typical. “After spending a few days with the Windows 7 beta, I will admit that overall it proved to be vastly better than I expected on a few important fronts,” Hartley says. “The biggest front proved to be the speed front. From installation to the first boot, the OS release did really well.”

Businesses holding firm for Windows 7 also have the reassurance that Windows 7 is actually an incremental upgrade of Vista, or as some might say, “Vista done right.” Microsoft has had a number of years to work out the flaws in Vista, and apparently, the first iteration of Windows 7 should be the payoff, according to Michael A. Silver, an IT analyst with market research firm Gartner (www.gartner.com).

“More than five times as many users will run the beta version for Windows 7 as ran the beta for Windows 95,” Silver says. “This enables Microsoft not only to receive more data, but also to characterize and classify the problems, and work with vendors responsible for a large number of the problems to fix them before the product ships.”

Another plus for playing coy: Microsoft plans to offer XP stalwarts an upgrade discount once Windows 7 hits the streets. Under that plan, XP users will still need to do a clean, complete install of Windows 7 (rather than popping a disk in their PCs and letting XP auto-migrate to Windows 7). But even so, XP users know they can save real money if they stay with what they have, and upgrade only when Windows 7 becomes available.

Of course, there is some real risk involved for companies that want to stick with XP ‘til the bitter end. One that’s particularly nettlesome: while basic security patches for XP will still be available, other less widespread security threats may be overlooked or simply ignored by Microsoft. Put another way, companies who opt for good ol’ XP will have a big problem on their hands if a security breach brings down its entire computer system—and no one can come up with a known solution.

Another risk is simply waiting too long to embrace the inevitable. Like it or not, businesses planning to stay with Microsoft are going to be running on a Vista-like system during the next couple of years, one way or another. Implementing Vista now, even as a pilot project, could make migration to Windows 7 that much smoother and easier. Vista champions also insist that migrating to Vista in preparation for Windows 7 may enable many companies to hold off on installing Microsoft’s first crack at Windows 7, and instead wait for the first service pack for the OS to be released.

Companies using this approach will be able to operate with a seasoned copy of Vista, allow pioneers to go through the inevitable growing pains anticipated with Windows 7’s initial release and then assumedly easily migrate to a much more stable and refined version of Windows 7.

There’s also that uncomfortable rule of the jungle to consider. Fact is, Microsoft wanted XP six feet under years ago. All that time, users have been able to thumb their noses at Microsoft’s suggested Vista upgrade, only because reviews for the OS have been so uniformly negative. But this time around, the initial takes on Windows 7 are heavily in Microsoft’s favor. That said, it may become increasingly harder to defy progress—defined by Microsoft as moving to Vista, and then on to Windows 7—if the reviews for Windows 7 beta continue to be gleaming.

Bottom line: businesses that are perfectly happy with XP, do not plan on doing a major computer hardware upgrade during the next few years, and are willing to assume a prudent risk when it comes to a security vulnerability that may or may not materialize, will probably be staying with XP until Windows 7 delivers on its promise. But businesses that are planning major computer hardware upgrades soon and would rather prepare for the inevitable move to Windows 7 than to be last to the party, will want to think long and hard about making an initial migration to Vista, and even being among the pioneering firms that adopt Windows 7 the moment the new software drops.

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