This month marks the first time that Microsoft Windows XP has dipped below 50 percent market share among personal desktops and laptops worldwide, after having peaked at about 75 percent in 2007, according to NetApplications.com.
The 10-year-old operating system is notorious for its security holes. It's got much less protection against viruses, Trojans and other malware than do its successors Windows Vista and Windows 7, and even the National Security Agency itself advised against XP's continued use in a document released earlier this year. Yet it maintains a strong presence worldwide, especially in China and Russia, and that huge installation base makes it easier for malware writers to spread their wares.
Savvy users might blame XP's enduring popularity on the naivete of less knowledgeable consumers, but the real culprit might be Microsoft's own naivete when it comes to how consumers make their decisions.
"Users in general are averse to taking time out of their schedules to come up to speed on the newest features which, at the end of the day, they don't view as significantly improving their productivity," said Tom Halleran, a service delivery executive at a global IT services provider.
Change or die
Microsoft is slowly but surely abandoning XP. Mainstream support was officially retired in 2009, and the software giant will discontinue all support — likely including security patches — for XP by 2014. The company's motivation is clear: Compared to streamlined modern operating systems such as Vista and Windows 7, XP has become an embarrassment.
Aside from perpetuating security holes that were never fully addressed, XP makes other operating systems more attractive to consumers looking to trade up. Comparison shopping between Windows 7 and Apple's Mac OS X is a more or less level playing field; comparison shopping between XP and OS X is no contest.
So why are XP users reluctant to upgrade? There are four main reasons.
Price is an obvious factor, and not just because Windows 7 starts at $200. Mainstream consumers tend not to upgrade their operating systems until they buy new machines. Microsoft expects its customers to respond to upgrade deals, yet ignores the fact that the cost of the hardware itself — a new desktop or notebook — is the real stumbling block from a financial perspective.
Then there's another concern: compatibility. Corporations may have to buy new machines for entire departments to keep up with operating-system requirements. Home users often prefer to have all their machines running the same operating system — the unpredictable network mismatches that can arise are often too difficult or time-consuming to troubleshoot — and at $200 per Windows 7 license, it may be easier to stick with XP across the board.
Home and corporate users also don't like the learning curve of adapting to a new system. XP users are used to their work flows; they know where to find what they need, and they like it that way.
Microsoft is mistaken in thinking that every new version of its flagship OS must be a substantial change from the last. Windows users have set tasks to accomplish when they boot up, and taking time out to re-learn how to accomplish those tasks is not what they signed up for. The waste of hours (and, potentially, corporate resources) is a strong deterrent to upgrading.
Tales from the dark side
Some advanced users might consider the above three reasons for resistance to be limited to the less computer literate, but many coders and developers find a fourth reason to avoid updating: preference.
"Tech-savvy users who understand the security benefits of upgrading are often unhappy with what they see as an increasing lack of control over their system," Halleran said.
With both Vista and Windows 7, Microsoft has been pushing toward a sleeker, more user-friendly, but less user-controlled model. It's no coincidence that these developments have been compared to Apple's standard look and functionality. A quick Google search for the phrase "more and more like Mac" turns up nearly half a million results, and even a cursory glance at the text excerpts suggests that this isn't what a lot of Windows users want.
If it's attempting to win over Mac users, Microsoft has failed on two counts: Mac users exhibit tremendous brand loyalty, and PC power users tend to stick with Windows precisely because it isn't Mac. If anything, this race toward a shiny OS singularity only encourages power users to adopt alternative operating systems such as Linux; and indeed, as XP's market share has dwindled, Linux has gained ground.
In mimicking the Mac model, Microsoft is alienating its hardcore demographic. Despite quirky ad spots to the contrary, the choice of "Mac or PC" these days is usually based on mere preference, not technical factors.
At the same time, Microsoft's unrealistic assessment of consumers' willingness to upgrade to unfamiliar systems at high prices means that the world will likely be saddled with XP for years after support is completely abandoned.
Facing the glaring security problems of an XP-infested future, Microsoft might need to rethink both its OS development and its business strategy. The company can sweep XP under the rug, but it won't be easy to smooth out the big lump that remains.