Here we go again: Windows 7 will be the new XP

Start planning now for booting Windows 7 out of the enterprise, urge analysts

Even as enterprises try to purge their last Windows XP machines, Gartner analysts today urged organizations to start planning for the end of Windows 7.

"Now I need to worry about the next version?" Michael Silver of Gartner rhetorically asked today. In fact, yes. "Objects in the future are closer than they appear," he quipped.

Microsoft has pledged to support Windows 7 until Jan. 14, 2020, or five years and five months from today. The company's "Mainstream" support -- the front end of a 10-year stretch -- ends Jan. 13, 2015, but the firm will continue to provide security patches for the popular OS for another five years after that in its "Extended" support phase.

With more than five years left on the support clock -- and with many enterprises having just wrapped up their migration to Windows 7 -- why start planning now?

"While this feels like it's a long way off, organizations must start planning now so they can prevent a recurrence of what happened with Windows XP," said Silver and Gartner colleague Stephen Kleynhans, the two analysts who authored a recent report for the firm tagged "Plan Now to Avoid Windows XP Deja Vu With Windows 7."

In fact, said Silver, the time between the likely launch of Windows 8's follow-up -- at the moment called "Threshold" by many, including Silver -- and the end of Windows 7's support is approximately the same as the timespan between Windows 7's debut and XP's retirement: About four-and-a-half years.

And everyone knows how that turned out.

Not well: According to Gartner's surveys, nearly 25% of the PCs in organizations -- private enterprises, government agencies and the like -- were still running XP in April when Microsoft pulled the patch plug. That same 25% was cited by Web metrics vendor Net Applications as the percentage of the world's personal computers running XP last month.

Having a plan, Silver stressed, could help organizations avoid a repeat of XP's expensive end-of-support scramble. And time is ticking.

"Microsoft will soon start talking about Threshold, at least they need to start talking about it soon if they plan on shipping it next year," said Silver in an interview. "They need to give customers an idea of what the road map is going to be."

And when Microsoft starts talking, organizations should start listening, if only to try to figure out whether there's enough difference between Threshold and the Windows 8 flop to commit to the former. If Threshold is simply a warmed-over Windows 8, then enterprises must know that, too -- and as soon as possible, so that they can postpone migration plans entirely and hope that whatever comes after Threshold is palatable.

Organizations will have about the same amount of time to purge Windows 7 as they had to rid themselves of Windows XP, Gartner says: about four-and-a-half years. That means enterprises should start planning now for Windows 7's end of support. (Image: Gartner Research.)

Gartner expects that Threshold -- possibly called "Windows 9" in the end, although there are arguments against using another numeral -- will launch in the second quarter of 2015. Some pundits, including long-time Microsoft watchers like ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley, have pegged the spring of next year, effectively the same timetable. Foley has also said that Microsoft will publicly preview Threshold this fall.

But why plan at all? Why not just do what Microsoft would love for customers to do, move now to Windows 8? "I don't see Windows 8 turning around or organizations grabbing Windows 8," Silver answered.

While that take wasn't unexpected -- industry analysts have been saying that since before Windows 8's debut -- Gartner was blunt. "Organizations have been hesitant to deploy Windows 8 on non-touch devices because of concerns surrounding the new user experience" and "don't upgrade existing Windows 7 PCs to Windows 8 without a business case," the report stated.

Microsoft itself has signaled it's accepted Windows 8's fate, and has moved on: Not only has it begun to downplay Windows 8 in its corporate messaging, it plans no new major updates, but will instead deliver new features in monthly small packets, a process that started Tuesday.

But although Silver said Windows 8 was effectively off the table, he and Kleynhans still included the reputation-challenged OS in the options they laid out.

Companies can deploy Windows 8 on new PCs as they arrive, the two said, to phase out Windows 7 over time; or enterprises can deploy Windows 8 across the board to scrub out its 2009 predecessor. The first, they said, "may make sense for many organizations," but the second they dismissed. "We see little value in doing this," they wrote in their report.

The third road in their trio was the one they bet most companies will take: Skip Windows 8, and plan to deploy what they called "Windows v.Future," which might be Windows 9, or perhaps the iteration after that.

Silver called it Option 2B. "That will be the one a lot of folks choose," said Silver.

The problem with that choice, however, is that it will involve additional cost, because the migration won't start until 2018 or 2019, not enough time to ease into Windows v.Future organically as old machines are replaced with new systems. Organizations will have to budget extra funds to plan, coordinate and execute the last-minute migration.

A riff on that, said Gartner, would be to accept that Windows 7 will not be gone by January 2020, and then prepare to pay Microsoft for at least one year of custom support after Windows 7 falls off the public patch list.

Those custom support plans, which provide patches for critical vulnerabilities only to firms that pay for them, had been very expensive, with reports of companies forking over millions for an additional year. But in early April, just days before Windows XP was put to pasture, Microsoft drastically dropped the prices for its Custom Support Agreements, or CSAs, to a maximum of $250,000. There's no guarantee that those prices will remain static, Gartner noted: Microsoft has frequently moved the dollar figures up and down over the years.

The major problem for organizations will remain application compatibility, and as a corollary, regulatory requirements related to the applications.

"Application compatibility and support will continue to be the biggest issue for migrations to new versions of Windows," Gartner said. Some organizations, particularly government agencies and those with compliance requirements -- financial firms, for instance -- can only run applications after the vendor officially supports them on a new version of Windows, or after the applications have been validated for the new OS. That process can take as long as 18 months after Microsoft ships that new edition.

"Even if your applications all work, and a migration is flawless, that doesn't mean that ISVs [independent software vendors] will support it running on, say, Threshold, or provide that support quickly," said Silver. "It doesn't mean that organizations subject to federal regulations are going to be able to validate those applications.

"Microsoft has not grasped that many organizations have a need for longer-term stability," Silver added, referring to the Redmond, Wash. company's faster tempo of OS upgrades. He blamed enterprises' reluctance to adopt Windows 8 partly on that pace; they saw Microsoft ship Windows 8.1 12 months after the original, then require those customers to apply the Windows 8.1 Update 1 less than 10 months later.

Which brought Silver to Microsoft, and what it could to ease enterprise migration pain.

"Microsoft has to come to terms that organizations and consumers are different," said Silver, repeating a call he's made for years that Microsoft has ignored. "In fact, there are at least a couple of different kinds of organizations."

If Microsoft wanted to help out its biggest, most valuable customers -- commercial firms and government agencies -- it would separate Windows into two buckets, one for consumers, the other for everyone else, and apply different release tempos for each. Consumers, as Silver and every other analyst who follows Microsoft has said, benefit from frequent OS updates, a pace Silver has characterized as "like a phone OS."

But large organizations not only do not benefit from the faster cadence, it puts them in a bind.

And there are clues that Microsoft will make it worse for them. "Another reason for Microsoft to do something different is the rumors of free upgrades for Windows," Silver said of the chatter that Threshold will be offered to customers, likely consumers only, free of charge. That's what Apple did last year for all its OS X customers.

"If it makes [Threshold] free, and upgrading as easy as on a phone, Microsoft could reduce the lifecycle for consumers," Silver said. "But it still needs a long-term solution for organizations."

Until Microsoft separates consumer from commercial, the latter will continue to skip one or more iterations of Windows, their only real answer to the high costs and disruption of upgrading.

For Windows 7, that means organizations will go through the same machinations they did with XP. Or maybe even balk at dumping Windows 7 at the same pace as the venerable Windows XP, making things worse.

"[A repeat of Windows XP] is certainly likely to happen," said Silver. "One of the big differences that's been under-considered is that because Vista took five years to come out [after XP], there were eight years between XP and Windows 7. So Windows XP felt pretty old.

"But there will be only six years between Windows 7 and Threshold, so Windows 7 won't feel that old to people," Silver said. In other words, don't be surprised if organizations hold onto Windows 7 with a death grip, even as 2020 approaches.

Read more about windows in Computerworld's Windows Topic Center.

This story, "Here we go again: Windows 7 will be the new XP" was originally published by Computerworld.

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