What's the price of not upgrading from Windows XP?

Microsoft and its hardware partners really, really want everyone to abandon Windows XP by April 8. But the world won't end if you don't.

It's the end of an era at Microsoft. No, I'm not talking about CEO Steve Ballmer retiring and being replaced by Satya Nadella, though that also qualifies. I'm referring to the imminent "death" of support for Microsoft's long-running Windows XP operating system.

Microsoft -- and its hardware partners like HP, Dell, and many others -- really, really, really want you and everyone else to upgrade to Windows 8.1, or at least Windows 7. In hopes that Windows XP upgrades will save the PC industry, they're pulling out all the stops, from warning of potential security catastrophes to offering discounts and special financing on new hardware, along with a wide variety of assessment tools and migration services designed to ease the process. They're even inviting small groups of journalists to dinner to discuss the issue!

Is April 8 the new Y2K?

The efforts seem to be working for enterprises. Jordan Chrysafidis, Microsoft's vice president of OEM worldwide marketing, said that only 10% of enterprises in the developed world still use XP exclusively -- although he also said that 24% of small businesses don't even know that XP is reaching its end-of-service date. Either way, though, its pretty clear that not everyone is going to upgrade by the April 8 support cut-off.

Like other tech scares dating back to Y2K, that may not cause an immediate disaster.

Don't get me wrong, I'm totally behind the upgrade push. Windows XP is ancient, and no longer delivers a state-of-the-art computing experience -- it was designed long before touch and the cloud and mobility and virtualization and modern management techniques took center stage. XP users can't hope to take advantage of modern trends and cope with today's threats.

But that's the point. Failing to upgrade from Windows XP is more about forgoing the advantages of modern technology than it is about some arbitrary doomsday. Things aren't going to be dramatically different for XP users on April 9 than they were on April 7 -- though they're likely to get worse over time. It's just that XP users will be leaving the promise of the 21st Century on the table.

According to Chrysafidis, for example, one recent study showed that upgrading to Windows 7 or 8.1 can save $700 per year per user -- one more argument for using a modern OS. But it's also hardly an imperative to make the switch by any specific date, or for every machine in every application to be instantly upgraded.

XP is everywhere

Windows XP was incredibly popular and remains deeply ingrained in machines of all types used for all sorts of purposes. (Heck, I've still got an old netbook running XP.) XP is found in millions of small business, retail outlets, and factory floors, and the upgrade usually isn't just swapping in a new operating system. In many cases, you'll need brand new hardware and have to upgrade proprietary apps that don't work on other versions of Windows (most packaged apps are compatible). That's simply not top of mind -- or budget -- for many users and organizations. Again, the new hardware is going to be way better, cheaper, and more reliable than the old XP boxes it replaces, but you already own the XP machines, so that's not always a useful comparison.

As Chrysafidis pointed out, upgrading from XP is a great opportunity to remake outmoded business processes as well as replace hardware and software. But that's a big deal that requires serious planning -- it doesn't make sense to tackle a major project like that on Microsoft's timetable. Waiting carries risks -- security breaches or aging hardware giving up the ghost at an inopportune moment -- but so does rushing into an upgrade process you're not ready for or can't afford.

No excuse not to upgrade

Yes, you're going to have to upgrade from Windows XP, and sooner is better than later. But if you ask me, it's more important to do it right than to do it fast. Far better to leverage the opportunity to truly take advantage of what modern technology has to offer than scramble to meet the April 8 deadline just to end up doing the same old things on a shiny new PC with a shiny new operating system. (As long as you don't get hacked in the meantime, of course.)

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