Well, it pretty much had to happen. Microsoft kept Windows XP on life support for 13 years, but finally stopped on April 8. Three weeks later, a major security flaw in Internet Explorer (IE) was found, rendering many of the 300 million people who still use the outdated operating system (OS) vulnerable to cyberattack.
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People tend to forget, but this happens the same way every time. Microsoft tries to keep each generation of OS alive for as long as it can while developing one or two new ones at the same time. When a new one is ready, the company begins to throttle back on the old one until one day it stops supporting it altogether.
Lest anyone think I’m singling out Microsoft for special punishment, let me reassure you that Microsoft is in good company. Every OS sucks, even Apple’s Mac OS and Google’s Chrome. But since the OS sits at the “chokepoint” in the stack, the unique arbiter of what goes above (the apps) and below (the hardware), it has taken on an outsized importance. Microsoft has, of course, dined out on this happy circumstance for many years, and has had a big hand in elevating the OS above other system elements and branding the heck out of it, but a chokepoint is leveraged by any company lucky enough to have one.
That having been said, it’s time for all those remaining XP users to migrate to something newer. That’s good news for the system makers — Lenovo, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and others — because they have a shot at a lot of new business in 2014. But before they get too happy about it, they should be aware that once users of ancient PCs decide to extract themselves from the rat’s nest of their old systems, they may do a zero-based assessment of their computing needs and discover that they don’t want the next Microsoft OS. They could decide to go lightweight and cloud with Google or switch computing platform to Apple. Or maybe choose liberty and buy no computer at all. Just kidding. There are precious few people today who can get along without one. Even a smartphone isn’t enough for everything a user might want to do, particularly when it involves lots of screen real estate.
And while we’re at it, this upgrade cycle will also benefit the beleaguered Intel, which supplies chips for more than 90% of all PCs.
So, with several hundred million seats in play, this should be a good year for the old PC empire if it can manage to convert most of them to the latest offerings. Landing commercial users shouldn’t be much of a problem. As a whole, commercial users are conservative, tending to stick with what they know works. In addition, there’s the compatibility issue. All their files are already in Office formats. For this group, Windows 7 is a the clear choice. It’s a solid upgrade from XP but looks familiar. System makers can still preload Windows 7. Very few commercial buyers have a need for the touch capabilities of Windows 8, the new interface can be confusing, and the Windows Store may not be the best way to manage corporate software.
But consumers are another story. Many consumers could make do with different platform. Google Docs is enough for less-than-industrial use and free is an appealing price point. When a consumer turns in an old PC, everything has to be upgraded, including expensive productivity software. The more price-elastic buyers will be quite open to the siren song of free. Since Apple no longer charges (separately) for software, and Google never did, all the user is facing is a hardware purchase. Despite these enticements, if consumers want to stay with Microsoft, all they will find in retail is Windows 8.
Other online venues offer a wide variety of choices.
If they go to Amazon.com and look under Laptops & Tablets, they will find a pile of Samsung Chromebooks and Kindle fires right on the first page along with Dell, ASUS, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, and Acer notebooks. A link to a MacBook page hangs invitingly in the middle of the page.
Despite lures to alternative platforms set all along the way, the much-buffeted Wintel ecosystem should be able to convert most of the old XP base this year, which bodes well for these companies’ financial results as well as their morale.