Homeless in Vancouver: Are XP users buying Microsoft's FUD?
Microsoft has a habit of using fear marketing to keep Windows customers from leaving the fold; for nearly 20 years it's tried to hold back the threat of open-source software by sowing Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt about the Linux operating system; belittling it, calling it a cancer, and ultimately claiming it infringes Microsoft’s patents.
Lately, Microsoft has taken to throwing mud, or “FUD” as the technique is known, at its own popular operating system: Windows XP.
XP is still, after 13 years, the second most popular operating system, used on an estimated half billion computers.
But except for a small percentage of enterprise customers using embedded XP under long-term service contracts, XP is dead to Microsoft. Both they and PC makers can only see a lot of potential new computer sales.
What a wicked web we create with FUD
But how to drive XP users into the stores?
Set an arbitrary deadline, say April 8, when all tech support and security and virus updates will cease, and fill the media with scare stories about how Windows XP is set to become the Typhoid Mary of operating systems… and sit back.
But wait! Windows XP users already are filled with their own fear, uncertainty and doubt… about Windows 8.
If Microsoft’s campaign of fear against XP works, the effort could still fail, depending on what XP users fear the least: Windows 7/8 or Linux.
Fear, uncertainty and doubt; Sality, Ramnit and Vobfus
Microsoft is now warning that sticking with XP after Microsoft stops providing security updates on April 8 will have dire consequences: viruses, malware, and spyware—oh my!
A good example is a “cybersecurity report” released by Microsoft last October, which detailed the risks of running unsupported software.
After analyzing “threat intelligence” from 1 billion systems worldwide, the report says it found Windows XP was six times more likely to be infected with a virus than say, Windows 8. The report also names the three top threats to XP, two kinds of malware: Sality and Ramnit, and a worm called Vobfus.
The first thing to note? This warning has nothing to do with unsupported software—in October XP was still supported. Near as I can tell, at the time Microsoft released this report it listed that its free antivirus program, Microsoft Security Essentials, could detect and remove all three threats, and it was still a free download for Windows XP.
Remember that FUD is a marketing technique to create sales.
XP users basically haven’t put any money in Microsoft’s pocket for 13 years now. The PC industry’s sales slump would disappear overnight if even a quarter of the world’s XP users bought a brand new computer.
Microsoft doesn't want XP users to upgrade
Let’s say you want to upgrade your old XP to either Windows 7 or 8/8.1—both cost about US$100. Assuming your hardware can handle the upgrade, you’re in for a time-consuming, manual process, but Windows 7 is easily your best bet.
In fact Microsoft’s own instruction on upgrading Vista and XP to Windows 8.1 says:
“Windows 8.1 isn’t designed for installation on PCs running Windows Vista or Windows XP”
Undaunted Vista and XP users need to use the retail DVD says Microsoft, but…:
“Consumers will need to back up their files and settings, perform clean installation, and then reinstall their files, settings and programs.”
Upgrading XP to Windows 7 likewise involves a backup to an external drive and a clean install from DVDs. However, unlike the Windows 8.1 upgrade, the instructions for upgrading XP to Windows 7, include a step-by-step video walk-through.
There’s even a free download for XP users called Windows Easy Transfer, which can back up settings and files before the clean install and then reinstall them afterwards. But sadly, not application programs—those still have to be manually reinstalled.
Microsoft ups fear factor but will XP users buy it?
Obviously Microsoft and the entire sagging personal computer industry really want XP users to just go out and buy a whole new computer. But can they imagine long-time XP users reeling from the future shock of Windows 8? Apparently Hewlett Packard and Dell can.
Under the slogan “Back by popular demand”, HP, the world’s number two computer seller, is again selling new laptops preloaded with Windows 7.
Dell is also telling potential customers that “Windows 7 PCs are still available.”
Windows 7 at least bears a strong a family resemblance to Windows XP, but a lot of XP users may not want to drop a lot of cash on a new computer and a lot of new software.
In that case Microsoft’s deadline may push a lot of XP users to take a hard look at Linux. Many of them should like what they see.
Linux is free, super stable, runs fast on old hardware, is far more virus-resistant than anything Microsoft makes, and it can look comfortably like Windows XP. And a lot of XP-era Windows software can actually run in Linux! And did I mention that it’s free.
Close the Windows, you're letting in Linux!
XP is running on something like over 30 percent of the world’s computers, which strongly suggests a lot of that 30 percent is made up of old hardware.
Business customers have to be concerned not only about the large learning curve between Windows XP and Windows 8, but whether the newer Windows will even run on their old computers. Linux in contrast, is well known for running great on older hardware.
A quick look at the minimum requirements
Windows XP Home
- Pentium 233 MHz processor or faster
- At least 64 MB of RAM
- At least 1.5 GB of available hard disk space
- 1 GHz or faster processor with support for PAE, NX, and SSE2
- RAM: 1 GB (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
- Hard disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
- 700 MHz processor
- 384 MB of RAM (32-bit) or 1 GB of RAM (64-bit)
- Hard disk space: 5 GB (32-bit) or 10 GB (64-bit)
- VGA capable of 1024×768 screen resolution
- Either a CD/DVD drive or a USB port
- x86 processor
- 512 MB RAM (1GB recommended for a comfortable usage)
- 5 GB of disk space
- Graphics card capable of 800×600 resolution
- CD/DVD drive or USB port
XP users can run lots of Windows software on Linux!
One particular distribution of Linux, called Zorin OS, has always crafted itself as a stepping stone from Windows into the Linux environment. Even to the point of offering premium themes to more closely emulate Windows XP or Windows 2000.
One point to add but not overstress is that Linux has an emulator to run Windows software side-by-side with Linux; it’s called Wine and it has been in development for a very long time.
Its one weakness—that it’s best for running older Windows software—makes it perfect for XP users moving to Linux.
End of support can mean better security for XP users
What about just staying with Windows XP—is that as bad a thing as pundits are saying? Not necessarily.
After April 8 when Microsoft cuts support to XP (if it goes through with it) there will be no more security updates, the XP edition of Microsoft Security Essentials will be discontinued and the XP-specific Internet Explorer 8 will no longer be supported.
Far from being a bad thing, this could be the best thing to happen to XP users if it weans them off the weak sauce of Microsoft Security Essentials and the Internet Explorer 8 Web browser.
Security-wise, sixty bucks a year will allow an XP user to use any number of real commercial antivirus and malware programs, such as Kaspersky Antivirus, that beat anything Microsoft is giving away for free. Even Avast Free Antivirus is consistently rated head and shoulders above MSE.
As for browsers, both Chrome and Firefox have up-to-date versions that run in XP and run circles around IE8. Google has announced it will continue supporting and updating Chrome for XP until at least April 2015. Both Firefox and Opera also say they will support XP after the April 8 deadline.
Software makers will never abandon such a large market segment. In fact, after April 8, Windows XP users will become a valuable niche market in their own right.
A brief history of Microsoft's FUD about Linux
Over the years Microsoft’s attitude toward Linux has grown from dismissive to disdainful to downright despicable.
For the last handful of years, the centerpiece of Microsoft’s FUD campaign against Linux has been the chilling, fear-inducing threat of litigation over patent infringement.
Microsoft has one of the largest patent portfolios in the computer industry; it legitimately holds fundamental patents in every area of modern computing.
So claims that Linux infringes on any number of Microsoft’s patents has always been plausible, as have threats of legal action against companies using Linux.
As Linux adoption continues to accelerate in both the private and public sectors, Microsoft has begun pulling the trigger on its litigation threats.
As Linux grew so did Microsoft's alarm
When Steve Ballmer became Microsoft’s CEO at the beginning of January, 2000 (the same month Steve Jobs dropped “interim” from his title as CEO over at Apple), Microsoft was well into a campaign designed to keep open-source software on the sidelines. Under Bill Gates, Ballmer had been the face of a sneer-and-smear campaign against the Linux operating system beginning in the late 1990s.
Linux grew alongside the public Internet so it wasn’t until the late 1990s that Microsoft had anything to worry about. However Linux, and Microsoft’s concern about it, grew quickly.
Glyn Moody’s A Brief History of Microsoft’s FUD succinctly details how Microsoft’s attitude towards Linux changed from dismissive to snarky to downright nasty.
“The way the license is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source,” Ballmer explained. Open-source software, in effect, infected any other code it came in contact with.
2003: The infamous "Year of the Worms"
Three years later, in 2003, Ballmer had good reason to be phobic about infections.
XP was savaged by three major virus outbreaks in a row; particularly the Slammer, Blaster, and Sobig worms. The estimates of the financial damage from the Sobig worm alone ranged from $14.6 billion to $37.1 billion.
Microsoft’s FUD campaign against Linux escalated in intensity as XP looked more and more like unprotected virus-bait compared to Linux.
If XP users were going to change operating systems to get better security and performance, Microsoft wanted them to change to the new, more secure, Windows OS-in-progress named “Vista”, not Linux.
While it put the polish on Vista, Microsoft worked to put the so-called fear, uncertainty, and doubt into potential Linux adopters by questioning the legality of Linux, saying it might very well violate Microsoft patents.
In a 2006, Ballmer explained to Forbes magazine:
Well, I think there are experts who claim Linux violates our intellectual property. I’m not going to comment. But to the degree that that’s the case, of course we owe it to our shareholders to have a strategy.
At the end of January 2007, Microsoft released Windows Vista worldwide.
Beyond a superficial facelift, Vista was a stopgap measure designed to address fundamental security flaws in its predecessor.
In XP every user automatically had maximum administrator privileges by default. This had the consequence that any malware the user unwittingly launched had unfettered access to the entire operating system.
Vista limited standard user privileges by default and walled off the web browser’s downloads.
Vista failed to win over Windows users; It didn’t replace XP. The perception and reality of Vista’s performance and stability flaws caused companies to downgrade from Vista back to XP, and caused other users to stay with XP, forcing Microsoft to continue supporting Windows XP with updates far beyond its intended shelf life.
Microsoft had hyped Vista as both a Linux and Mac OS X “killer”. It was neither. Worst of all, it wasn’t even an XP killer.
It was a huge misstep for Microsoft and its CEO, Ballmer. There was nothing else to do but do better. Fortunately, they had something better already in the works.
“Windows 7 will be Vista, but a lot better,” declared Ballmer in a 2008 interview, which was headlined: "Ballmer: It’s ok to wait until Windows 7".
Windows 7 was released in late 2009. It was styled to look like Vista, and embodied Vista’s security improvements, but ran circles around Vista performance-wise.
Code-wise it was more a child of XP. A lot of users, enterprise or otherwise, had been waiting a long time for new features in a stable framework; Windows 7 was very successful—is very succesful.
The problem is all those laggards. Windows 7 was released in 2009 but it wasn’t until 2012 that it finally overtook Windows XP as the top OS.
An item from 2011—when XP was still the number one OS—parsed visits to one website by operating system and found 140 visitors were still using Windows 98, three were using Windows 95, and, in 2011, one brave user somehow made it to the site on their coal-fired computer running Windows 3.1—only 16 years after it was officially dead-and-buried!