Windows 7's virtual 'XP mode' could mean support nightmares

Proves how far Microsoft will go to get people to forget Vista, say analysts

Microsoft Corp.'s decision to give some Windows 7 users a tool to run Windows XP applications in a virtual machine may have been necessary to convince people to upgrade, but it could create support nightmares, analysts said today.

Last week, Microsoft announced that it would offer an add-on called "Windows XP Mode" (XPM) to users of Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate and Enterprise when the new operating system ships. Professional and Ultimate are the two highest-priced versions of Windows 7, while Enterprise is sold only through volume licensing agreements.

Microsoft was clear about XPM's purpose. "Windows XP Mode is specifically designed to help small businesses move to Windows 7," Scott Woodgate, the director of Windows enterprise and virtualization strategy, said in a blog entry last Friday.

"I think that this will help the uptake for Windows 7, because it removes one more 'gotcha, and that's never a bad thing to do," said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

The idea of using virtualization to provide backward compatibility for older applications is neither novel or surprising, Cherry continued. He called it a nice "safety net" for users concerned about abandoning XP who don't have access to the centrally-managed MED-V (Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization).

MED-V is available only to organizations that have a Software Assurance plan in place and who also purchase Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP). Microsoft launched MDOP 2009, which includes MED-V 1.0, earlier this month.

XPM is a smart, if necessary, move, given the reception users gave to Windows Vista, Cherry said. "Because of the way Vista was received -- it's got enough baggage already -- the more they can do to address all those things [Vista was criticized for] up front with Windows 7, the more likely that people will go to the new OS," said Cherry.

Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner Inc., echoed Cherry's take on what motivated Microsoft to offer XPM. "It shows the extent to [which] Microsoft wants to get people who use XP onto Windows 7," he said.

But Silver sees some big downsides. "You'll have to support two versions of Windows," he said. "Each needs to be secured, antivirus-ed [sic], firewalled and patched. Businesses don't want to support two instances of Windows on each machine. If a company has 10,000 PCs, that's 20,000 instances of Windows."

The other big problem Silver foresees with XPM is that it may cause some companies to neglect the real task: making sure the software they run is compatible with Windows 7. "This is a great Band-Aid, but companies need to heal their applications," Silver said. "They'll be doing themselves a disservice if, because of XPM, they're not making sure that all their apps support Windows 7."

He also noted that, while Microsoft is effectively extending the lifespan of Windows XP by offering it as a Windows 7 add-on, it's not budged on support. Microsoft shifted Windows XP out of mainstream support two weeks ago, and will provide what it calls "extended" support only through mid-April 2014.

"[XPM] will give some a false sense of security," Silver warned. "What happens in 2014, when XP isn't supported anymore? I think companies will be much better off if they make all their applications run on Windows 7."

In the end, XPM illustrates a long-standing problem for Microsoft, said Silver: supporting aged applications. Silver and fellow Gartner analyst Neil MacDonald made waves last year when they argued Windows was "collapsing" under the weight of nearly two decades of legacy code and decisions.

"This sheds some light on Microsoft's compatibility problems," Silver said today, "which slows people down in adopting the newest operating system. They're using this as a way to get Windows out there [on enterprise desktops] quicker, but this isn't the answer. It needs to morph into something that's supportable long-term."

Microsoft has said it will ship a beta of XPM "soon," but has not pinned a more specific date to its availability. The company will, however, deliver Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC) to users of its MSDN and TechNet services on Thursday, and to the general public on May 5.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Gregg Keizer

Computerworld
Topics: Windows Vista, windows xp, Gartner, xpm, Microsoft, Windows 7
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