How long should we support old Windows versions?

Mike Halsey MVP
Jun 11, 2011
Updated • Dec 4, 2012

Apple this week announced their new iCloud service, bringing together MobileMe and iTunes in the cloud. With it though they also announced they were dropping support for Windows XP from the new product. Indeed they were only supporting their own desktop operating system, OS X, going back four years to 10.5 'Leopard' too. This raises an interesting question, just how long should we support older operating systems, and especially Microsoft Windows?

I'm singling Microsoft out in this article because the other major desktop operating systems don't seem to suffer from this problem. Apple have a clear policy of only supporting older versions of OS X for so long and, because these (so far at least) haven't been susceptible to malware in the way Windows has, there has been very little in the way of support that Apple has had to offer.

GNU/Linux, especially Ubuntu the most common name in Linux, changes so regularly that there's no need to support older versions at all and indeed legacy support almost never happens. Each new version will run happily on the hardware of an older version so people are simply encouraged to upgrade for free.

So where does this leave Microsoft? This company has a bigger problem. Not only is it the market leader with millions more computers around the world running its operating systems, it also faces two other major problems. The first of these is big business, Microsoft's largest customer group, who traditionally leave it at least a year or two after a new version of Windows is released to upgrade and many of whom are still using Windows XP today, despite Windows 7 having more than proven itself in terms of reliability, security and performance.

Businesses don't like upgrading very often. They tend to approach these things in an "if it's not broken, don't fix it" manner because they have all types of bespoke desktop software and intranet services that still require the devil's browser, Internet Explorer 6 to work, and it's expensive and time-consuming to bring these up to date. In short, they'd all rather not bother.

Microsoft introduced XP Mode, a fully licenced copy of XP running in a virtual machine for Windows 7, to address this problem but it doesn't seem to have helped. Businesses just won't shift in great-enough numbers.

Then we have the developing market for whom computers are an expensive luxury and where running Windows 7 is just something the old 386, 486 and Pentium computers they're still using won't run it, at least not well. Many of these people are stuck on XP both because of performance and price. These people simply can't afford to upgrade despite Microsoft long ago having made available a special version of Windows just for them.

The official policy of Microsoft for product support is that...

Microsoft will offer a minimum of 10 years of support for Business and Developer products. Mainstream Support for Business and Developer products will be provided for 5 years or for 2 years after the successor product (N+1) is released, whichever is longer. Microsoft will also provide Extended Support for the 5 years following Mainstream support or for 2 years after the second successor product (N+2) is released, whichever is longer.

This puts Windows XP support ending on April 8th 2014, a massive 13 years after it first went on sale and Windows Vista on April 11th 2017. Many people argue this is simply far too long.

So why is it too long and what are the reasons for forcing people to upgrade sooner? Apple seem to have the right idea on cost. It's just too expensive to maintain support for these older operating systems. Microsoft could too save money by cutting support for XP earlier and they'd have some increased revenue for those people who are forced to upgrade (business customers on their Software Assurance programme will have already paid for Windows 7 depsite not using it).

It would be better for the man on the street too, knowing that his operating system would be more secure because he simply wouldn't be using XP... or would it?

The question remains that if Microsoft pulled all support for XP would people actually stop using it? There would certainly be a proportion of people who would upgrade but a great many more, for whom XP is also as comfortable as an old shoe, wouldn't even necessarily know that support had ended and would carry on using it anyway.

This scenario could create a security nightmare for the world with not only these individuals having their PCs being targeted by virus and malware writers, but also with the huge potential for these machines to be hijacked by botnets to attack larger targets.

It could also be argued that Windows versions would be much cheaper, maybe even approaching OS X levels of pricing ($90 over three years), if many years of additional support staffing didn't have to be factored into the overall cost.

We can't say though that we, as a consequence of this being a possibility, all have a responsibility to continue to support XP. Education is needed here for consumers, direct intervention in the form of financial help is needed for the developing world and big business needs a firm kick up the backside. It was big business who forced an extension of the support life for XP after all, and these people have a lot to answer for.

So should Microsoft drop support for a product that's older than four years in the way Apple do? The answer in my mind is a definitive yes, but with the pressures Microsoft are under we can probably still expect to see computers running Windows XP for many years to come.


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  1. Sticker Tocker said on April 6, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    The author is retard, i’ll put it simple apple and linux have no software compatibility 98 of software is made for Windows. Nearly nothing is made for apple and linux, plus windows computers are fast beautiful customizable cheap and much more powerful to macs. Windows XP is by far not outdated in a matter of fact why do you need to upgrade if you are satisfied with your current os. And why do you stick your nose in other people business, don’t you have a LIFE or something? Get a family and stop whining on the internet. XP is eternal you will die but xp won’t.

    1. Dean said on April 7, 2012 at 12:48 am

      “Get a family and stop whining on the internet.”

      Riiiiight… someone call the irony repair man please?

    2. Linux User said on April 6, 2012 at 7:03 pm

      Looks like you are a Windows Fan boy. I am using both Windows and Linux since 1994. I use Windows because my office works relies on windows. Otherwise I use Linux at my home. You say Windows is cheap? Are you kidding! License for 10 -20 computer takes thousand of dollars! Linux is best and it is more customizable and beautiful than windows. So shut up noob before talking negative about Linux or Mac……

  2. taylor said on June 19, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    why cant microsoft release one os system and stay with that? theres too many os systems out there!!!

    1. Cattleya said on July 28, 2011 at 10:33 pm

      I think so. Only one OS and improve it day by day, it is easy to manage and prevent website User-Agent problem, example some website only connect by Windows 7, not for Vista and XP.. etc

  3. Turko said on June 13, 2011 at 8:01 am

    The “OS” is no longer in beta. I honestly think a perpetually updating and evolving OS is the way to go (think Arch minus the regressions). Cleverly written and strategically released updates that allow corps and consumers to transition slowly and smoothly. Sounds too good to be true, well if anyone could it would be MS.

    From a corporations POV Windows 7 is a POS. I don’t care that it’s “stable and reliable” so is XP. It’s intentionally bloated and the lockout of the 64 bit kernel is a terrible idea. Not to mention that AMD and Intel are both terrible at making use of the 64 bit potential. The default UI causes eye fatigue and it’s slow opening and closing reduces productivity, and uses more electricity. It was developed for soccer moms not corps. While I’m on my soap box, 16:9 monitors are terrible for desktop use!!! “More secure”, no company cares about a silly software firewall or UAC/HIPS. They’re behind a hardware firewall and most desktops and running LUA. MS made their bed, and corps have spoken… NOOOOO!!!!

    Anyone still running Windows 2000 with LUA and SRP, you bet!!

    The question should really be, do we need new operating systems every X amount of years.

    What I hate most about Ubuntu and many other Linux distros are it’s short life spans and when I do upgrade none of my custom configs or scripts work because they’ve decided to go with something completely new.

    Apple… I thought they only made iToys??? Doesn’t the “i” stand for idiot? I couldn’t resist.

    1. Ravi said on October 1, 2011 at 11:06 am

      “What I hate most about Ubuntu and many other Linux distros are it’s short life spans and when I do upgrade none of my custom configs or scripts work because they’ve decided to go with something completely new.”

      You can switch to Ubuntu LTS (Long Term Support). When you don’t know about Ubuntu then please don’t say anything about it.

      Linux – Same hardware new distros can be installed.

      Microsoft – New OS need new Hardware.

      1. Dean said on October 1, 2011 at 1:58 pm


        Where do you get it from that you need new hardware? So long as you have a decent setup (I.E. enough RAM and a half decent CPU) there is no reason you can’t upgrade…. sure, drivers can take a while to emerge for some older kit, but the same is pretty much true to Linux.

        When you don’t know about Windows then please don’t say anything about it.

      2. Martin Brinkmann said on October 1, 2011 at 1:55 pm

        The last remark is not entirely true.

  4. kalmly said on June 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    “How long should we support old Windows versions?” – –

    “Businesses don’t like upgrading very often.” – –
    It’s a huge expense – and as long as it accomplishes nothing (“if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”) a stupid expenditure. Too bad our government is not so wise.

    ” . . . Many of these people are stuck on XP both because of performance and price. These people simply can’t afford to upgrade despite Microsoft long ago having made available a special version of Windows just for them.” – –
    I keep reading that the “special version” is too slow to be useful.

    “This puts Windows XP support ending on April 8th 2014, a massive 13 years after it first went on sale and Windows Vista on April 11th 2017. Many people argue this is simply far too long.” – –
    MS made a great produce. Now they rue the day? Why do “many people” care? Your explanation is that you fear we will infect you with our unpatched XP machines. Seems to me a good reason for MS to continue support, not end it. I really, really resent being bullied into using an OS I don’t want. Yes, I’ve “experienced” it. It’s pretty. Better than XP? No. – But, here is my plan. After April 8th, 2014, I will cease to visit your website with my fast, stable, and beloved XP computer.

    This is also a no: When MS pulls support I will not stop using XP. Another no: MS will not be selling their many versions of the MS OS at cheaper prices – for any reason. Puhleez!

  5. Ross Presser said on June 12, 2011 at 5:24 am

    Nobody screams bloody murder at people driving the same car for more than ten years. Certainly it’s a drain on the oh-so-vital car economy, whereby if cars don’t turn over every three years the manufacturer goes into a slump. But there are plenty of private individuals (known as “mechanics”) who are more than happy to “support” old cars. You even have a free choice about who you want to do the repairs.

    So why isn’t it the same with computers? Why do all patches have to come from God, er, Microsoft and Apple?

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on June 12, 2011 at 10:39 am

      I’d say the core difference is complexity.

  6. TRY said on June 12, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Well if MS decides to give a nice discount to all existing legitimate XP users maybe then people might be encouraged to upgrade to Windows 7 but knowing MS they won’t do it, rather support XP users as long as possible for them.

    I’m sure we will be seeing SP4 for XP systems quite soon.


  7. Dean said on June 12, 2011 at 1:30 am

    I know that business is probably the main culprit here, but price also has a factor to play.

    For all the faults people seem to find in Vista (I have no problems with it personally) it’s still A) More up-to-date and B) more secure than XP (And its predecessors). But it still costs £59 – Windows 7 is £58.

    Surely dropping the price (Or even giving the damn thing away) would encourage some to try it out – thus reducing the need to support old(er) versions – if they dropped the price or made it free, there would be no reason to offer support for old versions any longer.

    If businesses want support for old versions – make them pay for it via TechNet or something (Or whatever it’s called now).

    At the end of the day – you (usually) get a one-three year warranty on hardware and have to pay for anything more than that – and even then you wouldn’t really expect more than a five-seven year extended; why is software any different?!

  8. webfork said on June 11, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    Part of the initial idea behind the “Wintel” (Windows and Intel) monopoly back in the mid-90s was that Microsoft would push everyone to upgrade to the latest OS and Intel would quid-pro-quo by doing what it could to make Windows run faster and encourage users to use

    That deal is long dead as Intel has invested millions in Linux and is now the only available Mac processor. Microsoft has no reason to require that users update to the latest and greatest OS. They should offer paid support long after the OS is made available. Security patching expenses could come from this money and from further sales of low-end (Netbook) machines.

    Unfortunately, the problem is that Microsoft has an agenda and the industry will stop looking to them as technology leaders if they don’t forward new technology on a regular basis. You’re not a leader if you aren’t on the front of things and XP is considered in the rear-view mirror.

  9. AnonCoward said on June 11, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    When Microsoft starts selling their OSes at reasonable prices, I’ll start caring about them “losing money” on supporting and developing patches for old systems.

    I had to upgrade to W7x64 for several reasons (for one thing, some apps that I work with don’t support 32-bit systems anymore). As a 64-bit system, it supports more than 3GB of RAM, but other than that, it does not outperform Windows XP in any way.

    The UI is terrible. Frames, borders, all the eyecandy takes up too much screen space, and the contrasting colors (especially the use of whites for backgrounds everywhere) hurt my eyes.

    As for security, if you compare Windows XP and Windows 7, the latter is only more secure with “out of the box” settings, which is great for people who simply don’t know how to secure their systems. The problem is, there are a lot of limitations in Windows 7 and Microsoft’s 64 bit systems’ architecture in general that make securing them as tightly as XP 32-bit impossible.

    I wish I could go back. I’ve been using their software since early 90s and, for me, XP was the best OS they’ve developed.

  10. dwarf_toss said on June 11, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    I’d argue that the net benefit in upgrading from XP to 7 doesn’t justify doing it. In the end you’ll end up slower than before, and to boot, many of your clasic games will refuse to run.

    Their OS really needs a “I am not a UI whore” button.

    Just because the current culture is supports bloatware out of ignorance does not make it right. I also disagree that MS would “pass the savings down” if they used less resources to support legacy OSs.

  11. Mike said on June 11, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    if microsoft could develop an os like mac?
    that’s the question..

  12. pd said on June 11, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Until enough people are convinced there’s a better alternative out there. Vista was a disaster, 7 might be better than Vista but it’s no better than XP. The only reason to upgrade from XP will be evil vendors not supporting XP such as Microsoft themselves with IE9 and Mozilla not supporting some forms of hardware acceleration on XP. Otherwise why go through the pain of upgrading when there’s very minimal benefit?

    People have woken up to Microsoft’s software dev practices. Every so often they produce a dud OS such a ME and Vista. If you get set up on a good version, there has to be a massive reason to manually upgrade. Only when machines get upgraded and have a new version pre-installed would people bother.

  13. Dan said on June 11, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Sadly, WinXP will continue to be used beyond its shelf-life date. It’s a decent enough OS and can run on old and underpowered machines. In our office there are 7-10 year old Celerons still chugging along fine, and since our industry isn’t tech-centric (manufacturing), we can afford to keep the Celerons for as long as they can still boot up. But when one of them conks out, I’ll be recommending a Win7-capable machine as replacement.

    1. Cattleya said on June 12, 2011 at 3:17 am

      I think so, I work on Window XP’s computer much faster than Window 7.
      Why not Microsoft release some service pack for XP like XP SP4, SP5, SP6..

      “Until enough people are convinced there’s a better alternative out there. Vista was a disaster, 7 might be better than Vista but it’s no better than XP”

      I totally agree with you, Window 7 is beautiful but it is not better than XP.

      Window XP still is a good choice

      1. taylor said on June 19, 2011 at 8:13 pm

        xp is great but its time to get with the times and get new stuff

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