Microsoft’s Windows XP dies on April 8, and I will not be among those who mourn its loss. The sad part about the death of XP is that those who still run it might not even realize that their operating system is now dead.
After 12 years, Microsoft is no longer going to be providing security updates for Windows XP, which has plenty of people concerned. The death of XP, however, could be a golden opportunity for Linux—or it could just be yet another missed opportunity for the Linux desktop.
Windows XP, given its age, is running on older hardware that in many cases is still operational but simply lacking in the power to be upgraded to Microsoft’s Windows 7 or 8 operating systems. In some cases, those old XP machines are running in very cost-constrained environments where there is simply no additional funds for a hardware refresh, let alone a full operating system refresh.
Linux is a potential solution. For older, resource-constrained hardware, there is no shortage of options in the Linux desktop world. Unlike Microsoft’s monolithic Windows operating system, there are multiple flavors of Linux distributions and Linux desktops to suit nearly any need or user preference. As opposed to most Windows upgrades, Linux can be freely obtained without cost, and it might just fit the bill for many Windows XP users.
While there certainly are some resource-heavy distributions and desktops, there are also low-resource options. For example, modern Linux distributions including Ubuntu, Fedora and SUSE all have an option that could enable a user to run the LXDE Linux desktop. LXDE is a very low-resource desktop that I have been able to run successfully on Pentium III-class machines (RAM memory is always a concern, so the more the better). There are also really small Linux distributions like Puppy and TinyCore Linux that offer very small footprint options to users.
While Windows XP users can choose to install a Linux distribution over their existing systems to keep hardware running, that’s not always an ideal option. In many cases, these decade-old XP boxes have very full hard drives that are not easily replaced or expanded. Remember that the typical storage interconnect of a decade ago was PATA-based hardware and not the modern SATA-based drives that are widely available today.
That’s where LiveCD or LiveUSB versions of Linux may be able to save old Windows XP hardware. Many XP machines have CD-ROMs, which can be used as bootable devices. By inserting a LiveCD version of a Linux distribution, an old XP machine will boot into Linux without the need for the user to actually overwrite the existing operating system or its data.
Also with LiveCD, an XP user has the potential benefit of being able to leverage a modern browser and operating system while still being able to access legacy files on a system.
For those who have systems that support bootable USB, a LiveUSB can perform the same task, with the added benefit of persistent storage. As opposed to a LiveCD, which is typically read-only, a user can choose with a LiveUSB to configure a persistent storage overlay, enabling updates and data to be saved to the USB key storage device.
Death of Window XP Is a Golden Opportunity for Linux
Beyond the fact that many Windows XP installations are hardware-bound, no doubt there are users who are application-bound as well. While Linux has no shortage of applications, there could be any number of legacy or custom apps that simply don’t exist in Linux. For those use cases, a Linux installation or LiveCD approach might prove to be more troublesome. Linux does at least include some Windows-type capabilities by way of the Wine open-source application that can enable some (but not all) Windows apps to run on Linux.
For larger installations and those with the resources to invest in new hardware, it is also likely possible to virtualize a Windows XP installation within a virtual machine running on a Linux host. While the core XP operating system might not be getting any additional security updates from Microsoft, within a Linux virtual machine a specific application has the potential to be isolated and secured through policies that limit risk.
Unfortunately, while Linux does represent a lifeline for Windows XP users, I suspect it will be one that is not taken. The simple reality is that many of those users who are still with Windows XP simply just don’t know enough to care. Yes, I know there are lots of XP machines running cash machines that banks do care about, but there are also many machines sitting in libraries, schools and homes around the world where people simply don’t know any better.
The challenge for Linux is the same as it always has been. Linux desktop vendors need to more aggressively push the message of Linux as widely as is necessary. Linux can provide a freely available, safe option for Windows XP users, but only if the choice is clearly explained and promoted.
The end of Windows XP could well represent a golden opportunity for Linux, as it represents a lifeline for old hardware that is still useful for computing, even if it’s not useful for Microsoft’s operating systems.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.