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By | Trevor Pott 2nd April 2014 00:18

How Microsoft can keep Win XP alive – and WHY: A real-world example

Redmond needs to discover the mathematics of trust

Sysadmin blog What if Microsoft announced it's not ending support for Windows XP next Tuesday after all, and instead will offer perpetual updates (for a small fee, of course).

Something inside me, somewhere between my sense of humor and soul-crushing cynicism, drove me to turn that dream into an April Fool for this year. But all cruel joking aside, there's a very real discussion to be had about this.

How Microsoft chose to handle the Windows XP end-of-life is a great starting point for a discussion about the ethics and obligations of high-tech companies.

Almost a decade ago, I would have counted myself as one of Microsoft's biggest champions. Server 2003 R2 and Windows XP SP2 were fantastic upgrades to their predecessors. Microsoft was innovating again in the browser market, and the results of a massive internal refocusing on security were becoming visible to plebeians like me.

Amazing new technologies were pouring out of Microsoft, and Redmond appeared to be listening to its customers. Partners were (mostly) happy with how Microsoft was doing things and developers were jumping into the exciting world of .Net. The promise of upcoming releases gave us hope that the hits would keep on coming.

Vista and the 2007 range of server software, Office and other applications arrived, and they were pretty awful. Hope turned to ashes, but it was hard to dispel the absolute and unshakable faith I had in Microsoft. I was confident they'd turn it around... even if Vista and RibbonOffice were going nowhere near my PC. (Boycotting an app suite is hardly a protest, mind. Microsoft is rather hard to kill.)

Three years later, Microsoft managed to crank out Windows 7 and the 2010 line of server software, Office and so forth. Life was good, but it didn't last. Windows 8, the "all stick, no carrot" push to get us subscribed to the Office 365 cloud, the SPLA licensing redux, VDI licensing and a thousand more terrible decisions mounted. A former loyal champion, I had become one of Microsoft's loudest critics. Why?

XP end of life

To understand what kinds of decisions destroyed my faith, let's examine Microsoft's handling of XP end-of-life: the decision to discontinue support, security patches and other updates from April 8, 2014.

The first thing I want to put out there is that I do agree that – all things being equal – upgrading from Windows XP/Server 2003 to a newer operating system is a Good Thing. Newer operating systems have newer security features (assuming developers take advantage of them) such as ASLR and NLA. The more widespread these technologies are, the more secure we all are.

If it were a simple matter of upgrading Windows XP to Windows 7 or Windows 8, I would be entirely willing to point to those clinging to XP and say "get your act together." Herd immunity relies on having enough of the herd immunized and that does require pushing the reluctant – and the cheap – into the future.

The truth is that things are rather a lot more complicated for a lot of people. Let's take a look at a real-world example from one of my customers.

This machine shop is family owned and operated. There are three owners with maybe 15 people working there during peak season. They turn over about $1m a year. Much of their equipment was bought in the late 1990s and is perfectly serviceable today. Equipment like CnC lathes that can only accept jobs from networked PCs running NetBEUI.

The companies that manufactured the equipment no longer exist. There is nobody to rewrite the code in that lathe. The machinists running the shop certainly don't know how to do it, and a forklift upgrade of all their gear would cost $7m.

Windows XP could be loaded up with the drivers to talk NetBEUI, though you did have to root around on the CD to find it. The company in question cannot upgrade to Windows 7, for there is no NetBEUI support; the equipment flat out can't talk to it*. These folks certainly cannot afford to plunk down seven times their gross annual revenue on new equipment.

Of the 57 clients I work with, 43 of them are in positions where they simply cannot upgrade all their Windows XP systems in use. The choices for them are "run an insecure operating system" or "go out of business." There are countless businesses around the world facing similar issues; indeed, Windows XP still accounts for more than 20 per cent of all detected Windows computers connected to the internet.

Microsoft can offer affordable security to these companies. It chooses not to.

The mathematics of trust

I have been told by people I trust to know such things that it should take no more than 25 full-time programmers to provide ongoing patching support for Windows XP. Let's double that number to 50 just to be on the safe side. Let's also assume that doing Windows XP support at Microsoft is so awful that we need to strongly incentivize these developers, so we'll offer them $500K per year. We'll double that figure to make sure the developers get good benefits and that we factor in administrative overhead.

Based on the above we get 50 x $500,000 x 2 = $50m as the cost of ongoing yearly Windows XP support for Microsoft.

In 2008 Gartner said that there were 1 billion PCs "installed" on the planet, and estimated 2 billion by 2013. That lines up roughly with a number of "people connected to the internet" figures I've seen. Windows' worldwide end-point share is about 50 per cent, so if we assume half those 2 billion devices on the net are running Windows, we get that same "1 billion installed PCs" figure from 2008. Given the "woe betide us, death of the PC" flailing of the past few years, a static installed base of 1 billion Windows PCs seems about right.

If there are 1 billion PCs, and 20 per cent of them are XP powered, we have 200 million WinXP boxes still floating about. If we presume that 99 per cent of them are XP merely due to "cheapness" and that only 1 per cent of installed boxes have a good reason to remain XP that leaves us with 2 million Windows XP boxes that have a good reason to keep on being XP boxes.

Microsoft likes three-year refresh cycles. The cost of Windows Professional is $200. That is $66.67 per year, but let's round that down to $65. Sixty-five bucks per host per year is something small businesses and individuals can afford.

If all 2 million XP boxes that have a good reason to be XP boxes pay the cost of a Windows Professional license every three years, in order to obtain ongoing support, Microsoft would bring in $130m a year. That's $80m of annual wiggle room for what are some pretty pessimistic figures to start with.

Keeping Windows XP alive is good for everyone

It would take Microsoft a day, OK maybe a month, to crank out a patch that would tie XP systems to a subscription service somewhere, and thusly enabled them to receive ongoing support. Offering this ongoing support wouldn't solely benefit the companies and individuals running XP, it provides real-world benefits to Microsoft as well.

Such a move would start to rebuild trust. The total cost of support for XP is a minor marketing expense. If Microsoft could earn back customer loyalty and trust, then on that basis alone the costs of the program would be justified, even without any revenue from subscriptions.

My subscription plan would also see Microsoft get a significant chunk of businesses and individuals used to the idea of paying a subscription fee for their operating system. All of us aware that this is the ultimate goal Microsoft is fixated upon anyways, but they haven't found a way to sell it to the mass market as a Good Thing. This is one such way.

Microsoft also gets to look like they care about the human beings that are affected by their choices. In many ways, Microsoft's executives have more power to affect the day-to-day life of individuals and business than most of our planet's politicians. Making the cost of perpetual support for XP affordable to the hoi polloi gives them enough street cred to claim they really do give a bent damn about the customer.

Most important of all, an affordable support subscription like this helps decondition customers who are used to the idea of software having a useful shelf-life of a decade or more. You can keep whatever software you want, however old you want to keep it, but you'll pay Microsoft the cost of a new version every 3 years, no matter what.

Normally, I'd find that very premise offensive; if a company wants my money they have to offer me something of value. I don't pay taxes to corporations.

Yet here would be something of value. I pay Microsoft what they feel is their due, but if I don't find value in their latest offerings – say because I believe that Metro and the Ribbon bar were sent from hell to make us miserable – then I can cling to the past and pay for support.

The option to vote with my wallet, even when dealing with a monopoly, gives me the illusion of freedom and control over my own life. Both are important parts of my personal happiness, but for companies like the machinist discussed above happiness is secondary. The ability to stick to older versions is critical to the ongoing viability of running their business' IT securely... or at all.

Faith and the market

Microsoft is a company, and companies exist to make profit. Still, there are ways to go about making a profit that don't alienate the developers, partners and customers Microsoft depends on for tactical revenue and strategic ecosystem development. How Microsoft chooses to handle everything from product support to licensing influences my trust that Microsoft's goals are complementary to my own.

Microsoft's job isn't to force the market to comply with its "vision." Microsoft's job is to investigate the needs of the market and deliver goods and services that meet those needs, at a price the market will bear. This requires listening to – and engaging with – critics as well as loyalists.

The price of trust is a culture change. I know they can do it; they changed their entire corporate culture to make security a fundamental part of their software design. Now they need to make earning and retaining customer trust a fundamental part of every licensing choice, every marketing decision, and every strategy session.

A new generation is coming to power; people who are highly cynical regarding corporations and governments alike. They are virtually immune to traditional marketing and they are far more fickle than their predecessors. They are entirely aware that profit can be made by earning the loyalty of your customers instead of forcing the market.

The future belongs to those companies that can decipher the mathematics of trust. The question to hand is whether or not Microsoft is one of them. ®


* For those who got to this article Googling for possible solutions to the Windows 7 NetBEUI issue, I have found two:

  1. Under certain circumstances companies have been using NetBEUI when what they really need is LM announcing and 40-bit encryption. Enable these and see if what you need works.
  2. The Windows XP NetBEUI drivers may work on 32-bit versions of Windows 7, but you'll typically run into issues with the firewall, talking to computers on the local network that have IPv6 enabled, and it plays merry hob with network browsing; especially if you have multiple sites. Microsoft does not support this configuration at all. I do not know of a solution to make this work for Windows 7 64-bit.
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