The Microsoft Problem

Microsoft Windows XP reached a milestone last week when all new sales of the operating system ended. That’s not really new – most people haven’t been able to buy Windows XP for more than two years. But this latest nail in XP’s coffin affects netbooks. An exception to the 2008 end-of-life date for XP still allowed sales of XP on netbooks though October 22.

Hereafter, if you want a new computer with Windows, it’s going to be Windows 7. While there’s still the ability to downgrade your operating system from Windows 7 to Windows XP (and a lot of people, including our school district, do that), you can’t actually buy Windows XP anymore.

It’s interesting that it has taken Microsoft so long to shed XP. Its successor, Windows Vista, has been widely available since the beginning of 2007. That’s nearly four years – an eternity in the technology world. We certainly didn’t see this level of foot-dragging when it came to switching to XP from Windows 98 (we’re going to ignore the existence of Windows ME). There wasn’t a lot of complaining about the upgrade from Windows 95 to 98 either. And Windows 3.1 to Windows 95? People were excited to make the jump.

But XP is different. For one thing, it actually works. The old stability problems that plagued earlier versions of Windows aren’t there. I don’t think I’ve ever had a blue screen of death with XP that wasn’t caused by a hardware problem. Computers running XP don’t just lock up for no reason. XP does networking and peripheral support in a more-or-less sane way as well. It’s a comfortable operating system. It does everything we need to do.

And yet, that’s a big part of the problem. If XP does everything I need to do, why should I move to Windows 7? Sure. There are some cool features in Windows 7. It could potentially make it easier to do a few things. It looks pretty. I guess it might marginally improve my productivity. But when weighed against the cost of upgrading, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Upgrading Windows – especially at an enterprise level – is very expensive, both in terms of hardware and software and in terms of human resources. Consider the hardware costs: Windows XP requires at least a 233 mhz processor, 64 MB of RAM, and 1.5 GB of disk space. While we wouldn’t dream of installing new computers with those stats, those are the numbers required by Microsoft. They can be compared with the minimum requirements for Windows 7, which requires a 1 ghz processor, 1 GB of RAM, and 16 GB of disk space. That’s sixteen times as much RAM, more than 10 times as much disk space, and a comparable boost in processing speed. So in order to get the same performance from a computer running Windows 7 as one running XP, we need a computer that’s about 12 times faster/bigger/stronger/better. That’s a lot of processing power for a few cool features.

But that’s just the beginning. All of our servers run open source software. Microsoft doesn’t really like the fact that we don’t spend thousands of dollars per year on their server software. We don’t buy client access licenses. We don’t pay them for server software based on the number of computers or users we have. So with each new version of Windows, they do everything they can to break non-Microsoft network software. You can think of it as a non-conformity tax. The open source community has risen to the occasion, and worked out ways to get around this. But it involves upgrading all of our servers and finding new solutions to problems we’ve previously solved.

So, needless to say, I’m not excited about getting us updated to Windows 7. I know it’s going to have to happen sometime. It’s certainly going to have to happen by 2014, when Microsoft stops releasing security updates for Windows XP.

But what worries me about this whole thing is that it represents a larger problem. See, Microsoft doesn’t want me to upgrade to Windows 7. They need me to upgrade. This is even more true with Office than it is with Windows. Microsoft is able to sustain their existence by getting the same people to buy the same products over and over again. They rely on people – companies, mostly – to upgrade when there’s a new version out. After all, we have to keep up with the latest technology, right? And there are tons of new features. Who wouldn’t want to upgrade?

But what happens when there aren’t tons of new features? Office 2010 doesn’t give me anything new that I want to do. Even Office 2007 and 2003 weren’t big improvements over their predecessors. Honestly, for 99% of the work I do, Office 2000 works just fine. I don’t need to upgrade. The only reason for people to upgrade is because they feel forced to. And that’s when they start looking at alternatives like Open Office and Google Apps.

The missing component here is the innovation. As a country, we’ve always been able to innovate our way out of trouble. When labor prices got too high, we innovated to remain competitive. We introduced new processes and new efficiencies to improve productivity. We developed new technologies as the old ones moved to other countries. We relied on science and technology and medicine to always give us something new, something the other countries couldn’t do. That’s kept America in business for decades.

But we’re running out of new ideas. Or, at least, Microsoft is. And that has me worried. As we struggle to increase the emphasis on 21st Century Skills like innovative thinking, creativity, and problem solving in our classrooms, it’s becoming more and more clear that simply focusing on teaching kids information isn’t going to cut it.

Photo credit: Daniel F. Pigatto on Flickr.

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Author: John Schinker

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1 thought on “The Microsoft Problem”

  1. Office 2010 isn’t much of an upgrade. MS did change the crop tool to match Apple’s Pages. That was a long time coming. The other thing that should have been “fixed” in all previous versions, but finally happened in the 2010 upgrade was the way PowerPoint handles movies. Now movies are embedded into the presentation. Before, if you moved to a new computer, you had to take your PPT file and all movie files with you. The movies then had to be re-inserted in order to work. If (like many teachers do) you often move from computer to computer, this is a big deal.

    The Windows OS is different. According to my students, the new versions are considerably easier to use. The Start Search feature alone saves me hours of time every month.

    I teach in a lab with 30 XP machines. I give my students the option of bringing their own computers. Almost all students come to college with laptops and they don’t have Windows XP on them. Three years ago when Vista was new, only a few students brought their own computers. Now that 7 is out, half of my students bring their own computers. It’s not that they can’t use XP; it’s just harder to use because of key missing features.

    I think a good OS overhaul is good for students. An important 21st century skill is learning something new, quickly. I’m going to throw my students a curve ball in a couple of weeks when I bring a spindle of Linux DVDs to class. On that day everyone will use Linux to create a PowerPoint presentation (actually it will be Impress in OOo) which includes screen shots from Linux and pictures from a Zip file they will have to download from our Blackboard server.

    The project will take a little longer for some, but all of them will get it. Maybe next year Google’s OS will work for my class project. Maybe everything will be done in a browser without a visible OS. Whatever we have available, the students will figure out.

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