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Keeping XP and MPE follows same path

A few days ago we wrote about a manager of MPE servers who believed in making a transition. However, the financial leadership at his company didn't believe in a non-critical expenditure. At some companies, while profits are low or even worse, replacing something that's still working won't pass the justification test.

YellowbrickroadSince the HP 3000 drives businesses like storage companies and catalog-web retailers, I found an interesting connection to the replacement strategy in the Windows XP ecosystem. XP runs businesses, too. It has done so a long time, maybe about a third as long as MPE. XP was rolled out at the same time HP announced its exit from the MPE marketplace. Hewlett-Packard bowed out of the MPE enhancement business close to five years ago. Microsoft hasn't updated features in XP for at least that long.

On the Infoworld website, Windows book author Woody Leonhard explained that keeping a business running on old technology was going to trump many reasons to upgrade for better features. In "Why I'm Keeping My Windows Machine," he explained that Windows 8's better features came at the cost of letting crucial things -- like cash registers -- go unsupported on the new platform. Leonhard knows enough about the new Windows to author a book about it. A hardware element of his XP business ecosystem: An ancient IBM ThinkPad with an old-fashioned COM port.

Pieces of brittle plastic fall off it from time to time, and the creaking hinge always leaves me cringing for fear that the screen will finally fall off. But that old beast runs a proprietary piece of software that's vital for updating a specific line of Casio cash registers. My wife's business runs on those old Casio cash registers, and if that ThinkPad goes, her business goes, too.

I have heard from 3000 system managers still supporting a business with aging HP printers, ones that need MPE to drive their CCTL carriage control commands. Other sites have checked in using DTCs for communication with terminals. What about fax machines? I found another fax outpost this week: consumer-level investment companies. At TD Ameritrade, getting authorization to manage a retirement account involves a downloaded form, filled out and mailed. Or you can fax it. No emails, please; not secure enough.

Fax, DTCs, CCTL, it's all antique tech, but it's working. For some companies that's the best report they can hope to hear, while they invest in marketing, retooling their manufacturing line, or trying to position themselves for investment or acquisition.

Working in one of these places, where IT needs to have something broken to get major investment, can be no fun for a forward-looking professional.

However, looking forward is just one kind of computer analysis skill. There's also adept stewardship of elderly tech, as a way of being a team player at a company that's stretching for operating budget. Just think of how much clout our Infoworld writer earns by keeping his wife's business running. It's not like he hasn't tried to make newer tech work. The situation begins with a hardwired software reference to COM1.

I can't get it to work on anything but an old-fashioned XP PC with a COM1 port. All the futzing I've done over the years -- USB-to-COM1 adapters, Win7 XP Mode, VM connections, even add-on serial port adapters -- don't work. I've finally given up, realizing it isn't worth spending all that time to fix something that, truly, isn't broken.

Some day my wife will get rid of the old cash registers. When she does, she'll undoubtedly get a cheap, easy Android-based POS system and dump the old Win XP POS. For now, that kind of expense doesn't make any sense. Everywhere I look, I see old Windows XP systems that just work.

There are differences between the future of MPE and Windows XP. One is used by not more than a few thousand computers, while the Microsoft product still runs on millions of PCs. But nobody is really sure how many of either of these systems are running "in the wild," as Leonhard says. A survey of website hosting computers shows 37 percent still run XP.

There are XP systems running businesses for now, and there are MPE servers running businesses for now. And you just know there are 3000s communicating with XP clients. When a 3000 customer "gets rid of those old cash registers," so to speak, the rest of the transition dominoes will tumble in place.

Since an IT manager with a desire to make changes can't always coerce budget, the alternative is to look for the wood that might be causing the logjam. Cash registers. Printers. Fax processes (although some vendors can adapt a 3000's fax needs to other platforms). In the meantime, at least there's something running the company, a system that just works.