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Why Microsoft won't convert Windows XP holdouts

Some PCs aren't going anywhere until they flat-out die.

Microsoft did a pretty good job putting Internet Explorer 6 out to pasture, but it took a whole lot of nudging, cajoling, begging, and, finally, threatening some kneecaps to get people migrating. In the end, it took pushing IE 8 out as part of Patch Tuesday to finally retire the ancient browser.

Now it's trying again with Windows XP. One year from now, Microsoft pulls the plug on XP support, and this time they mean it. They have two legacy operating systems to support, and that's enough. I'm with them on this one. XP has got to go. The problem is, it won't.

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Four years after the launch of Windows 7 and six months after Windows 8, the company is still vexed by the persistence of Windows XP. The March 2013 numbers from Net Applications show that Windows 7 is used on 44.73% of systems and XP has 38.73% of the market. Windows 8 is at a paltry 3.17% of the market, making it less popular than Vista, which has 4.99% market share.

Things get a lot better with Steam Analytics, which focus exclusively on home users and gamers in the U.S. There, Windows 7 has 68.5% total market share, most of it 64-bit, while Windows 8 has finally pulled ahead of XP: 10.67% for Win 8 to 8.72% for XP. In both cases, the 32-bit and 64-bit versions were combined.

And here's where the first clue comes in: Of the 10.67% using Windows 8, 9.92% were using the 64-bit system. Only 0.75% used the 32-bit version, and given that there aren't any 32-bit x86 machines being sold anymore, we can safely deduce those are old machines that were upgraded.

I'll go so far as to add that I think those were XP machines that were upgraded, not Windows 7 machines. So when Microsoft makes a plea for XP users to upgrade and dangles a 15% discount off the OS, I suspect it will fall on deaf ears. If they didn't upgrade when Microsoft sold it for $49, they aren't going to bite now.

Who are these holdouts, the 38.73% (or 8.72%, depending on which analytics you believe) of XP users who say 'hell no, we won't go'? I believe they are the same as the 4.99% who use Vista (again, citing Net Applications): they are people who will use their PC until it dies and won't upgrade until then. Why else would 5% of the population stick with Vista? It's not because they like it. It's because they will use that PC until it dies. Then they will replace it, and not before.

These folks are not going to upgrade. Chances are the PC is too old and couldn't run Windows 8 properly to begin with. Second, upgrading an OS is a major pain. People with a five-year-old XP machine have it running fine. The last thing they want to do is disrupt things.

There are other reasons as well. Microsoft executives have been living in their bubble too long. It must be nice to have an immensely profitable firm that doesn't need to make mass layoffs, but here's the reality: 663,000 people left the workforce last month and now 90 million people out of a nation of 330 million are no longer even looking for work. They've got priorities, and a new PC is not one of them.

Then you have folks like my father, a retiree using an aging PC who sees absolutely no reason to upgrade. Dad is hardly broke; 35 years with one company has given him a pension that surpasses my earnings, embarrassing as that is to admit. He could buy a new PC any time he wants to. But frugality has him wondering why he would ever consider it when his PC works fine. I tried to convince him to upgrade before Windows 8 shipped because I did not want him using 8, given how user-unfriendly it is, but no go. Dad will use that thing until it dies and he can't repair it.

Then there's the rest of the world. Europe is in the toilet to various degrees of economic failure and they are all begging the Germans to save them (there's a switch. Usually Europe is begging someone to save them from the Germans). EMEA in general has slowed and even the BRIC countries have stalled out. Part of that is due to people skipping PCs and going straight to tablets and smartphones, while the rest is simply those markets starting to mature and sales slowing.

And I think it will be like this in perpetuity. Ten years from now when we are using Windows 10, there will still be Windows 7 users because, gosh darn it, HP and Dell and Lenovo made their PCs too damn good and they didn't break soon enough. Hell, I know of some Amiga fanatics still using Amiga 4000s, machines made more than 20 years ago.

Microsoft really shouldn't bother with these laggards. A blanket offer like 15% off on Windows 8 is pointless and will get very few bites. At this point, it should be focusing its energies on corporate and business users who have not been able to make a migration, not outliers who will run their PC into the ground. Gartner estimates that about 35% of PCs still need to be migrated today, and by this time next year, about 15% of organizations will still have about 10% of their PCs left to migrate. Focus on them.

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