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Windows XP's last hurrah

Although it will be supported and sold in limited fashion for some time to come, Monday marks the Microsoft operating system's last day as a widespread option on store shelves and new PCs.

The mere fact that Microsoft will stop widespread sale of Windows XP at the end of the day has been a topic here and elsewhere for months.

So, rather than rehash things (though you can click here for a recap), I thought I would take a look at the Windows landscape.

The most immediate question is, with Windows XP moving off the stage, just where is Windows Vista?

On the plus side, the newer operating system has sold 140 million copies, according to Microsoft. But, as I've been saying for some time, that is largely a factor of how many people have wanted a new PC in the past 18 months, as opposed to an indicator of pure demand.

However, businesses, which get to choose which operating system they run, have overwhelmingly stuck with XP. Just a tiny fraction of corporate machines are running Vista, with some companies not planning any companywide Vista deployment at all.

Windows XP remains popular with consumers as well. So, if businesses and consumers all like XP, why on earth would Microsoft stop selling it?

There are a couple of reasons. For one, XP is now seven years old. Even with a major security enhancement (XP Service Pack 2), the company benefits from shifting things to the more secure Windows Vista.

It is also critical for Microsoft to build the install base of Vista as quickly as it can. That's because developers won't really start building applications that are Vista-dependent until it occupies a large percentage of machines in active use. Even with 140 million Vista copies sold, there are still extremely few programs that really harness the features of Vista.

After waiting as long as it could, Microsoft has also started talking about what comes after Vista. In an exclusive interview with CNET last month, development head Steven Sinofsky said Windows 7 will use the same drivers as Vista and largely aim to preserve compatibility rather than introduce major changes, as Vista did.

At the "D: All Things Digital" conference, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer showed off one aspect of Windows 7: its ability to use multitouch input to enable the same kinds of gestures found in Apple's iPhone or Microsoft's Surface computer.

Some argue, though, that it is time to stop slapping new paint on top of Windows, instead rebuilding it from the ground up. Although there is an enormous and unmatched number of programs written for the operating system, preserving all those decades of compatibility is a crutch that has made it harder and harder to innovate, or even update the software.

The New York Times posted an interesting piece on this subject over the weekend. It points to a number of projects inside Microsoft suggesting that it, too, is thinking about other operating-system approaches.

They are things that has covered in the past, ranging from Microsoft Research's Singularity project to the slimmed-down MinWin kernel that the Windows team developed but apparently is not using in Windows 7.

The point raised in the Times piece is an important one, though. With Linux-based computers starting to make inroads at the low end, and Apple continuing to gain share at the high end, can Microsoft really afford to do business as usual?

Steve Ballmer has vowed that it will never again be five years between Windows releases. I think it is important to note, though, that even assuming no delays in Windows 7, it will be three years between its release and that of Vista--and that's for a release that doesn't make significant changes under the hood.

It appears to me, anyway, that making major changes to Windows has become an increasingly difficult proposition. Perhaps, at some point, Microsoft will have to consider what Apple has done three times with the Macintosh--make major changes under the hood, and use some sort of compatibility layer to maintain its ties to the past.

What do you think?