Windows XP: Is It Finally Time to Upgrade to Windows 7?

A new IDC study quantifies the operational cost savings and productivity gains of upgrading from Microsoft's Windows XP to Windows 7. The report also calculates the penalties of not upgrading.

This reporter drives a 2001 model car and recently visited the dealer to get a new floor mat to replace one that wore through on the driver's side. He was told the dealer stopped carrying that model floor mat in its inventory as of April 24. Microsoft Windows XP was released the same year that car rolled off the assembly line. For enterprises still running Windows XP, it's time to consider whether parts will still be available to keep XP on the road or whether it's time to trade it in for that shiny new Windows 7 on the showroom floor.

A May report released by research firm IDC compares the cost of migrating to Windows 7 to the cost of maintaining Windows XP, and the results are clear: Yes, there will be some up-front costs to update the operating system and buy some new hardware, but the return on investment is stark.

IDC's study was sponsored by Microsoft and written by analyst Al Gillen. It documented expected improvements in productivity for IT staff and end users from doing the upgrade and savings to the IT budget in not having to maintain dated Windows XP machines. On repair and maintenance savings, the report calculates that the cost of maintaining a Windows XP machine is $870 per year, while the same cost for a Windows 7 machine is $168. Maintaining an XP, thus, is five times more expensive.

The IDC report also looked at the "user productivity cost" of sticking with Windows XP. Productivity costs of $177 for a two-year-old XP machine nearly double to $324 in year five. Productivity costs include such items as downtime caused by security issues, time spent waiting for help desk assistance and time spent rebooting computers.

IT labor costs rose, too, in a Windows XP shop as repair people scramble about fixing faulty computers, from $451 per PC per year in year two to $766 per PC per year in year five. Put another way, for every 230 Windows XP PCs an organization supports, the equivalent of one additional 40-hour-a-week person is required to maintain them. A move to Windows 7 frees up an equal number of hours, IDC notes.

The migration path from Windows XP to Windows 7 is not likely to be affected by the introduction of Windows 8, which is expected sometime in the fall of this year, the report states. "Traditional IT adoption and deployment cycles are preceded by a qualification and impact study associated with any new products," the report states, adding that IDC doesn't expect to see commercial deployments of Windows 8 until late 2013 or early 2014. In fact, IDC expects commercial buyers of new PCs will exercise "downgrade deployment rights" to revert them to Windows 7 if they come preinstalled from the PC manufacturer with Windows 8.

Despite the advantages of Windows 7 over Windows XP, 42 percent of the PCs in commercial environments were still running XP at the end of 2011, according to IDC. While Microsoft support of Windows XP SP3 is set to officially end April 8, 2014, IDC calculates that at the current rate of migration, 11 percent of the commercial installed base will still be on XP by the end of 2014.

Reasons users gave IDC for not upgrading include that "Windows XP has been relatively stable, people are happy, they are able to do their jobs," and they "are afraid that [their] apps won't be compatible."

Microsoft and other third-party vendors have offered solutions to enterprise customers to ease the migration. Microsoft offers Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V), which helps enterprises evaluate the performance of their existing line-of-business applications in a simulated Windows 7 environment and upgrade those apps as needed to make the migration smooth. Companies like Citrix and VMware also have tools that create a virtual desktop image of Windows 7 on a PC.

Still, perhaps the best argument for a migration for someone clinging to Windows XP is to hear from people cited in the IDC study who made the leap and aren't looking back.

"The security is a lot better," "speed, reliability, flexibility, ease of use," and "ability to virtualize apps," were some of their comments. Migrating to Windows 7 also delivers to end users integrated WiFi and Bluetooth, faster USB ports, high-resolution monitors and touch-screen capabilities as well as access to more memory, the report noted.