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Windows XP bytes the dust

JUST DOWN THE LANE from where I live there is a workshop that specialises in the renovation of vintage cars – more specifically old Bentleys that are way past their sell-by date. It is a delightful place to visit and always reminds me of the benefits of progress, or ‘designed in obsolescence’ as some would call it. Big, heavy gas guzzlers with an open cockpit are definitely not my bag. I like very modern cars and technology – lightweight, lots of performance, but, best of all, long-term reliability.

My attitude to all forms of ICT is much the same and I can remember adopting Windows XP and arm wrestling it into a cooperative submission. This culminated in me deleting some 35% of the code as I found it detracted from speed and reliability. But I have to say that as soon as something better came along, which wasn’t long, I jumped ship. And since then we have seen the MP3 and mobile revolution where manufacturers typically upgrade their product every six months (or less) and provide no support whatsoever.

The reality is that the half-life of any high-tech product is getting shorter by the day, and is often prompted by an avalanche of software fixes and security updates that create such complexity and incompatibilities that the ‘growth sequence’ stalls and a new version has to be produced. The performance of our machines today, compared to 20 years ago, is as improved as that between a modern Bentley and one circa 1930. Remember all the blue screens and reboots of old? Why would any organisation hang onto old stuff in critical business operations? The only explanation I can think of is habit. ‘It works, so why change it?’ is the battle cry of the managers responsible, and all change costs money, doesn’t it?

The big question to ask is this: would something else work better, improve operations, give a better bang for buck, and even cut costs? All my tech decisions and those of the companies I help manage are made on return on investment. If a technology isn’t helping, if it isn’t improving operations and making a positive contribution, then it receives short shrift and is replaced. There are exceptions, of course; I experiment and try new things, and most are available as a free trial or at low cost, and you can often get hold of a beta copy or online version if you are fleet of foot.

Well, here we are – Windows XP has been supported for over 12 years, but it has less than 11 months’ support on the clock. Leading industry players are moving to alternatives while others are grasping the opportunity to be radical and move into the cloud. As far as I can see, the XP user base is shrinking at about 1.3% to 1.5% per month and has fallen from about 45% of users in 2011 to less than 32% today. It looks as though it will be below one in five of all users by 2014. However, there is consternation spreading in some sectors of the user base that are slower to move, but April 2014 will not see their world come to a sudden end. Nothing lasts forever and the demise of XP is just part of a natural progression. There is absolutely no need to panic or worry.

If companies want to continue with XP beyond the cut-off, it is not an immediate problem. XP will become more difficult as incompatibilities mount to the point where users wake up in a lonely museum of disused applications. But there is plenty of time to consider, to debate and decide. Moving on isn’t so hard, and – at a time when the cloud and BYOD are seen as the future – this could be a heaven-sent opportunity to gear up for the future and not only change the ICT but modes of operation. I have yet to see, visit or work for an organisation that cannot benefit from positive change, and the era of sitting at a desk using a corporate PC is fast coming to an end.

My advice is this: don’t become a spectator. Join the race, and win the benefits. ICT costs are going to continue going down, flexibility and adaptability are going to go up, people and managers will be more transient, and constant change is the new norm – so enjoy. ?

Peter Cochrane is an IT consultant and former chief technologist at BT 

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