Opinion: Microsoft, instead of turning the lights off on XP, make it open source

is there an ethical issue Microsoft should be considering when it hands out the death sentence on a old product?

To state the obvious,, Microsoft is hugely important economically and culturally, and as Peter Parker (AKA Spiderman) was told by his grandfather: "With great power comes great responsibility." (Actually Voltaire said it first but he said it in French so that doesn't count.)

Part of Microsoft's great responsibility is supporting the products it sells, but that responsibility apparently has limits. When Microsoft initially releases a product it has "Mainstream Support", meaning it gets free security updates, performance and stability improvements, bug fixes, and, if you're very, very lucky, the company might even cough up a new feature or two.

Once Microsoft has had enough of the product (by which I mean it has a successor in the market that is sucking up all the cash, making the old version uninteresting in commercial terms) it gets "Extended Support" which only includes security updates (unless you are a huge enterprise with a zonking great paid-for Microsoft support contract in which case your product problems will get a lot more attention).

Related: End of Windows XP support era signals beginning of security nightmare 

On April 9 Microsoft announced the immediate demise of Mainstream Support for Office 2007 and, on the 10th, the same fate befell Windows Vista. The company then, for reasons that aren't clear, flip-flopped on Office 2007 and pushed out the support death sentence until October. So, for the Extended Support period, all of these products will be gasping for breath with only the most pressing security issues getting any kind of fix.

What happens after that? Ahh, that is "a good question." For example, two years from April 9 all support for Windows XP and Office 2003 will cease, leaving anyone still running these products with significant potential functional and security exposure.

"So?" some of you may well be muttering "Windows XP was released in 2001 and Office 2003 in, well, 2003. Who would want to be running those dinosaurs now that we have nice, new shiny Windows 7 and Office 2010 and the even shiner new Windows 8 and Office 2012 on the horizon! I can hardly wait to get my hands on those bad boys."

First, I'd have to respond with the suggestion that you need to get a more rounded life ... maybe get out and walk a bit. Second, these are tough times and not everyone can afford to upgrade their hardware and shoulder the manpower costs of getting the new hotness up and running, say nothing of training the staff.

Third, there are plenty of organizations out there with what may seem to you to be seriously antiquated systems that, in fact, still do a perfectly good job. They have smaller disk drives as well as slower processors and less memory so they are, in comparison to your power-sucking mongo desktops, feeding from the electrical sippy-cup. Not only that but their cost was fully amortized years ago and there aren't a ton of surprises in keeping them up and running.

In contrast, there you are with all of those new, sexy viruses you fight with monotonous regularity which are mostly a non-issue to the users of the dinosaurs. Moreover, these old skool users can get the job done without having to learn whatever brand new user interface nightmare Microsoft now thinks is the light, the truth and the way.

So, my point is that there's a place, and a rational one at that, for old gear, whether it's computers or cars. For example, do you know what the most environmentally conscious car choice is? A Toyota Prius? Nope. A Nissan Leaf? Nope. The answer is a 1955 small block Chevy. Why? 'Cause it's carbon footprint was paid off years ago. It doesn't require environmentally toxic batteries. It can be easily recycled. It wasn't shipped across 6,000 miles of the Pacific to get here.

You get the point? Sometimes you have to add up the total life cost rather than look at the immediate costs if you want the real economic picture.

So, what will happen to those Windows XP and Office 2003 users when 2014 rolls around? While some consumers and a few businesses will try to hang on, the lack of support will encourage most people to migrate to the new hotness of Windows 8 and Office 2012 and pay the unavoidably steep price.

This got me to wondering whether there's a good argument for keeping these products alive. Given the huge investment by consumers and businesses, is it reasonable to pull the rug out from underneath them when there's no real reason to do so other than Microsoft's commercial self-interest?

Perhaps Microsoft should turn these products loose, make them open source and leave the care and maintenance of them to people who care enough to do so. You know that instantly projects would emerge to work on core maintenance and then distros as wildly varied as those you find with Linux would spring up and a whole new ecosystem of computing would emerge.

I think there's also an ethical issue here for Microsoft: Millions of people made investments in those products that goes far beyond what they actually paid Microsoft. Those investments involved the integration of the products with their lives, their businesses, their projects and their hobbies. They essentially acquired a new language and a new way of thinking when they picked Windows XP and Office 2003, and now Microsoft is saying they have to learn a whole new language or find themselves out in the weeds.

If Microsoft was to turn these products loose what would be the penalty to the company? Maybe a few lost sales, but the goodwill and good karma from doing something so positive and constructive with "lifed-out" product lines would be of enormous benefit to society, not to mention to Microsoft's image.

Alas, it's a nice idea, but I doubt whether it will ever happen. While great responsibility might come with great power, not everyone is willing to step up and be counted.

Gibbs is is powered up in Ventura, Calif. Plug in to backspin@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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Mark Gibbs

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