Microsoft made a key announcement yesterday – one it makes during every Windows upgrade cycle that indicates it has moved beyond the development portion in which it tries and fails to make the new OS an easy upgrade from the old and the part in which it tries to convince customers that it succeeded.
Actually, there are two announcements designed, when delivered together, to create a sense of optimism about the upcoming version of Windows and a sense of urgency about getting off older versions.
The urgency comes from the announcement that Microsoft's support for older operating systems – Windows XP in this case – will end soon, so users should get a move on and migrate to the current version so they can more easily migrate to the next version, which will arrive about the time the next version is ready.
Microsoft doesn't like Windows XP anymore, mainly because users did like it enough to stick with it rather than migrate to Windows Vista.
Now that Microsoft has sold more than 400 million licenses for Windows 7, it's confident enough to start pushing XP off the table, even though there are still twice as many XP machines in use as Windows 7.
Microsoft will only provide free, routine security support for Windows XP for another 1,000 days, according to a blog by Stephen Rose, IT community manager for the Windows commercial team.
"Wouldn't it be great if the glory days lasted forever," Rose asked (in what is either a rhetorical or a ridiculous question, depending on if you're a realist or a rhetoretician). "But reality is trophies get dusty, records are broken and what it took to be the best ten years ago just isn't enough for today's standards."
Darn right, Stephen. You can't stop progress.
Especially when "progress" means spending to upgrade all those XP licenses to Windows 7 (or Vista and then Windows 7), just to be ready to make the upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8 simpler when the time comes.
Microsoft designed the upgrade to Windows 7 to be simplest for machines running Vista, which could do an install-in-place on an existing machine, at least for some versions of Vista.
April 8, 2014 is death day for Windows XP, after which Microsoft won't ship any more new security patches or hotfixes although, Rose wrote.
Which means the time is coming to move on to the new, untested, barely even demo'ed new operating system
"Two-thirds of business PCs are still on Windows XP. Moving these users to Windows 7 is important and urgent work for us to get after together," according to Tami Reller, corporate VP and CFO for Windows, whose "us" meant Microsoft and the resellers in the audience at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference in Los Angeles.
The number of machines running Windows 7 outgrew the number running Vista in April, after Microsoft sold 350 million licenses; Windows XP was bigger than both, running on half of all installed PCs worldwide, according to IDC.
Since both Microsoft and its resellers net huge windfalls when customers upgrade to new operating systems – especially in an IT economy in which more and more software is available for rent rather than purchase – it's hard not to suspect her evaluation of what is "urgent" is based on criteria different from those that have kept all those businesses running XP all this time.
It's also hard not to suspect there's some fudging or unwarranted optimism in the real milestone Reller set yesterday by saying Windows 8 will run just fine on any machine currently running Windows 7.
Microsoft has said that about the upgrade of every version of its operating systems I can remember, from the earliest editions of DOS for Clay, With Cuneiform Tablet Interface right through XP, Vista and Windows 7.
Microsoft has always been careful to spec the new OS just within the upper end of the high end specs of the previous OS, and to trim down the code bloat of the new version so it will launch on older hardware, though more than one customer has been starved or bored to death waiting for the screen to change.
A friend of mine who insisted Windows 95 would run on his aging PC spent so much time staring at the little "wait-for-it" hourglass icon the image was burned permanently into his left cornea.
He uses tinted contact lenses with glitter to highlight it; it looks good.
New versions of Windows never run on machines set up for the old version unless they've already been beefed up for gaming or CAD/CAM or other resource-intensive uses.
Resellers, Microsoft and hardware makers (and many CIOs, too, actually) were looking forward to Windows 7 actually forcing companies to buy more powerful PCs to run it.
That's a leap of two operating systems, not one, and the expectation that it would spark a buying spree was based on the assumption that companies that cut back their IT spending in 2008 and 2009 by delaying new PC purchases would replace the most aged machines with versions that would run Windows 7.
It worked, to a large extent. Sales of PCs did bounce up a bit after the debut of Windows 7 in October, 2009. Microsoft's jump of 51 percent in net income was only partly due to sales of Windows 7. Office 2010 and Xbox 360 sales helped, too.
Windows 8 is the first version of Windows expressly designed to run on tablets, which had been expected to erode sales of PCs by attracting users looking more for convenience than power.
Sales of laptops and PCs have been bouncing back recently, though, indicating the tablet frenzy that was going to replace every PC with a handheld may actually take up just a slice of the overall market – possibly focused as much on e-readers and streaming media as traditional PC-bound applications.
That's good news for Microsoft and its PC-centric products and resellers. It's bad news for anyone expecting to run Windows 8 on their existing hardware.
As the ship date for Windows 8 gets closer, Microsoft will have a lot of opportunities to make save-or-drop decisions on features that will make a big difference in how well the OS runs on machines that are two or three years old.
They may still be good machines, but they'll be underpowered compared to newer versions; if Microsoft focuses relentlessly on the tablet market, the version of Win8 that ships might work well enough on older machines.
If, it shoves off responsibility for developing a tablet UI to a subset of developers and lets the rest of the Windows group focus on the main OS, forget it.
Despite the abstraction of computing resources that lets ordinary users pull a data-center's worth of computer power from the cloud to run on a smartphone, it still takes a lot of power to build in two interfaces and all the other bells and whistles Microsoft promises. It will take better graphics to support the UIs – one traditional, one with touch capability to support tablets – as well as touch-capable monitors, and more compute power to handle improved more security, a built-in hypervisor, an apps store, automated maintenance, better administration, improved Windows Explorer, real-time backup and imaging, better crash resistance, support for multiple monitors, awareness and cost-control of cell and WiFi wireless connections and all the other promised bells and whistles.
Just the immersive UI, with the mouse-gesture support that lets you swipe away one screen and pull over another simultaneously will suck up a lot of graphics power many business PCs just don't have.
Yes, Windows 8 will probably run on existing machines, especially if you dumb it down by uninstalling or shutting off components that eat too many system resources, as you can with Windows 7.
I'm actually betting Windows 7 will hold its own for a long time against Windows 8. Maybe not as well as XP, which only had to compete against the much-hated Vista, but well enough to be in a serious competitor for the top spot on the market-share lists for long after Microsoft wishes it would begin to fade away.
It will stay popular with companies that don't want to do wholesale upgrades of PCs, certainly, unless they're moving to large-scale virtual desktops at the same time.
If you want to run the full-featured OS on the desktop rather than on a hypervisor or a tablet, unless you're already buying users gaming rigs, when you go to Windows 8 you're going to have to upgrade a lot of hardware.
Microsoft says otherwise, but it always does. It's always (almost) wrong.
New OS = new PC.
With Windows 8, that equation has not yet changed.