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Microsoft in limbo as XP refuses to RIP

Microsoft in limbo as XP refuses to RIP

Why is XP proving so resilient? Compared with Vista its hardware demands are light.

Back around 1980, Yamaha killed off its classic twin cylinder XS650 motorbike after a record production run. Its refusal to die naturally was quite an embarrassment as the company tried to convert buyers to a faster, flashier, modern four-cylinder rocket. Microsoft faces the same dilemma with Windows Vista. XP just won't go away. In July, analyst Forrester Research reported that after 18 months in the marketplace, Vista had snared less than 9 per cent of the desktop market in larger enterprises. Microsoft debated the significance of that statistic - but last week XP dug in its fingernails harder as the company yet again extended the deadline for no-name PC builders to cease offering XP as an option.

By New Year's Day 2009, new PCs running XP had been due to be things of the past. Now the door is set to shut six months later. That's on top of an earlier decision to allow XP to be supplied on low-powered mini-notebooks like Asus Eee until at least 2010. It was either that, or take the risk that the booming netbook market became a Windows-free zone.

Industry scuttlebutt has it that the hardware builders are working to a softly softly plan. Convince Microsoft to push out XP's end-of-life by six months, and then just six months more, and then a little longer.

Why is XP proving so resilient? Compared with Vista its hardware demands are light. Where money is an object - and that's the case in most businesses we know - there's cash to be saved by sticking to pedestrian hardware and a lighter operating system. And unless you're willing to update the entire fleet at once, support costs of a mixed environment are bound to be higher.

We've also grown to understand XP pretty well. The reservoir of online information about how to feed and water it is wide and deep. Since XP's cardinal virtue is now low bulk, a specialty in slimming it down even further has developed. Installation footprints as small as 250 MB have been reported, but the best we've ever achieved is around 650 MB. These lightweight installations run distinctly faster on netbooks and other modestly specified PCs.

Our favourite utility for uncomplicating XP is XPLite from www.litepc.com. It can remove huge amounts of Windows flab. Of course we never lay a hand on the operating system without a full back-up handy, but so far we haven't needed it.

We have no need for the Windows fax service or any of the games or wallpapers or NetMeeting or drivers for US Robotics dial-up modems or dozens of other bits and pieces. Out they go. Desktops cluttered with Outlook Express icons and other unused software distract us. Off with their heads, too.

XPLite can identify large tracts of uninstall information that almost certainly won't ever be needed. We delete that, and win back several gigabytes of space. It's not only body weight we aim to save. The fewer unnecessary features installed, the more secure Windows is. Most email malware heads straight for Outlook Express and the Windows address book. They're out of luck on our machine. Neither is to be found.

To squeeze the last drops of fat from XP takes courage or madness.

Enthusiasts delete every possible driver, INF and log file and commonly report shaving another 25 per cent off the operating system.

For Microsoft, the big question is what business sentiment for XP says about the direction of Windows as a desktop operating system. Officially, the company is delighted by Vista and its market uptake. But the company's perception that it needed to run an expensive, if lame, advertising relaunch suggests otherwise.

Who knows whether business is telling Microsoft that tomorrow's corporate PC will be leaner and meaner, not more potent and portly?

We are heading for a world where PC saturation may exceed 100 per cent, as telephones already have in Australia.

If the enterprise has to supply a desktop in the workplace, a netbook for many staff, a pool of full-strength notebooks for travellers and at least subsidise many home computers, how likely is it that all of them will be fire breathers adept at running behemoths like Vista?

We think that XP will persist for a long time to come, especially as the rise and rise of virtual computing makes it easier to keep ageing engines running. There's a real chance that the next big thing won't ever be Vista Mark 1 but a smarter, more efficient product that Redmond hustles out in late 2009.

Peter Moon (peter.moon@privacy.com.au) is a partner in Logie-Smith Lanyon Lawyers.

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