Why was the Windows XP lifespan so long?

There are many reasons why the Windows XP lifespan lasted longer than those of most operating systems. Our columnist looks at three major reasons.

Microsoft will cease providing technical assistance for Windows XP on April 8, 2014. Alas, the appetite for desktops has changed in favor of more portable, power-saving devices, perhaps with touchscreens. In addition, cloud computing and ubiquitous high-bandwidth network connections have effectively displaced a decent amount of the raw computing power required for business operations.

Why have enterprise IT shops enjoyed such a long Windows XP lifespan? I think there are a lot of reasons -- here are the top three.

Strong business customer influence

Corporations and small business love predictability. They tend to try to minimize big changes, at least at the operational level and gladly muddle through with the status quo, particularly if it's good enough to get the job done reliably.

Over the past dozen years, Microsoft did a pretty good job providing timely updates for old reliable XP, while at the same time exploring new user interface (UI) designs and the latest multiprocessor architectures as versions progressed up through Windows 8.

Performance was a hotly contested issue a decade ago, but not so much anymore. Business people buy machines to accomplish work and get paid. Sticking with Windows XP features made sense for a lot of small and midsize businesses because they matured quickly and updates didn't change the way people worked.

Windows XP also proved to be great for uneventful rollouts. IT techs liked the fact that the OS could run multiple versions of the same application without much worry that one would break another. For some reason, if a new version of some app died, you'd always have a fallback position.

While Windows XP features didn't change that much, hardware has rapidly improved.

New hardware

Through the mid-2000s, hardware made big leaps, quickly moving to 64-bit and multicore processing. Windows XP ran well on these new machines, taking advantage of the higher clock speeds and larger memories.

Support staffers liked the fact that the underlying design of XP and its UI remained unchanged while becoming more stable over time. Any trouble spots became well-documented and fixes were readily available -- everybody knew how to fix Windows XP problems.

Over the past six or seven years, hardware capabilities have gone by the wayside. Most people aren't very impressed with a 3.0 GHz clock speed or having 8 GB of RAM. The corporate and business people want stability and a good return on investment, which means buying hardware and keeping it for as long as it can do the job well. The hardware has developed to such a state as to be both fast and reliable.

Half a decade ago, companies realized that they could lengthen the replacement cycle because the quality of the machines always seemed to get better and XP wasn't changing radically.

Sadly, the economy took a nosedive in 2008 and hasn't yet recovered. Companies continue to downsize, budgets have shrunk and everybody has had to tighten their belts. Of course, that situation is all the more reason for many enterprises to put off purchases of the latest hardware and the associated version of Windows.

Easy money

I think Microsoft realized years ago that not everybody wanted the latest and greatest products all the time. Business users especially wanted reliable, repeatable results without surprises.

So why fix something that isn't broken? And, as long as Windows XP and the fully-depreciated desktop still did the job, why give up a good thing?

In addition, Microsoft Office worked in perfect harmony with the OS which was another reason for the long Windows XP lifespan. Sure, there have been some upgrades over the years, but if you used Office applications 10 years ago, you can certainly pick it up and use it very effectively today.

More on Windows XP's end of life

Slideshow: Five things to consider as the end of XP support nears

Loyalists to Windows XP must weigh security

Understanding Windows 8.1 features the first step to surviving the XPalypse

What are the risks to users from the end of Windows XP support?

Belated updates get help from Windows XP migration tools

Migration options for life after XP

What's next?

Companies are now faced with some computing challenges. They can upgrade their hardware and broker deals for newer versions of Windows or hold on to XP, without Microsoft's official support, until the hardware stops working.

I think a lot of companies are examining tablets and smartphone-based apps as a way to transition away from the traditional fixed desktop system. There's a lot of interest in, as well as fear of, bring your own device practices. The market seems to still be up in the air on how this will play out, though, especially in the areas of standard office-based computing tasks, point-of-sale applications and systems such as automated teller machines.

Personally, I've been a bit disappointed with Windows 8. I've found the UI too complicated, there are too many bells and whistles, and things happen without explanation. I like to have feedback on my actions so I know if I'm on the right track or if an error occurred. Part of the time, I have to guess what Windows 8 is doing, while I wait and wait.

So, it will be an interesting time ahead as companies move off of XP and onto the newer versions of Windows. I expect many will successfully evolve over to cloud-connected tablets and smartphones, while some will move to Linux- or Apple-based notebooks.

Even as technology relentlessly moves on, the end of Windows XP support is a milestone as we step into the future.

About the author:
Rob Reilly is an independent consultant, writer and speaker serving clients in the private sector, small business and tech media. His analytical and "how-to" articles cover Linux and open source, the IoT, DIY and the Maker Movement and technology career development. He can be reached at [email protected].

Dig Deeper on Microsoft Windows XP Pro