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Breaching the Future by Rolling Back

Corporate IT has some choices to make, and very soon. A piece of software that's essential to the world's business is heading for drastic changes, the kind that alter information resource values everywhere. Anyone with a computer older than three years has a good chance of being affected. What's about to happen will echo in the 3000 owner's memories.

Windows XP is about to ease out of Microsoft's support strategy. You can hardly visit a business that doesn't rely on this software -- about 30 percent of the world's Windows is still XP -- but no amount of warning from its vendor seems to be prying it off of tens of millions of desktops. On this score, it seems that the XP-using companies are as dug-in as many of the 3000 customers were in 2002. Or even 2004.

A friend of mine, long-steeped in IT, said he was advising somebody in his company about the state of these changes. "I'm getting a new PC," he told my pal. "But it's got Windows 8 on it. What should I do?" Of course, the fellow is asking this because Windows 8 behaves so differently from XP that it might as well be a foreign environment. Programs will run, many of them, but finding and starting them will be a snipe hunt for some users forced into Windows 8. The XP installations are so ubiquitous that IT managers are still trying to hunt them down.

Classic-shell-02-580-100023730-largeThe market sees this, knows all, and has found a solution. It won't keep Windows 8 from being shipped on new PCs. But the solutions will return the look and feel of the old software to the new Microsoft operating environment. One free solution is Classic Shell, which will take a user right back to the XP interface for users. Another simply returns the hijacked Start Button to a rightful place on new Windows 8 screens.

You can't make these kinds of changes in a vacuum, or even overnight. Microsoft has been warning and advising and rolling its deadlines backwards for several years now, but April 8 seems to be the real turning point. Except that it isn't, not completely. Like the 2006-2010 years for MPE and the 3000, the vendor is just changing the value of installed IT assets. It will be making them more expensive, and as time rolls on, less easy to maintain.

The expectation is that the security patches that Microsoft has been giving away for XP will no longer be free. There's no announcement, officially, about the "now you will pay for the patches" policy. Not like the one notice that HP delivered, rather quietly, back in 2012 for its enterprise servers. Security used to be an included value for HP's servers, but today any patch requires a support contract. 

Windows XP won't be any different by the time the summer arrives, but its security processes will have changed. Microsoft is figuring out how to be in two places at once: leading the parade away from XP and keeping customers from going rogue because XP is going to become less secure. The message is mixed, at the moment. A new deadline of 2015 has been announced for changes to the Microsoft Security Engine, MSE.

Cue the echoes of 2005, when HP decided that its five-year walk of the plank for MPE needed another two years worth of plank. Here's Microsoft saying

Microsoft will continue to provide updates to their antimalware signatures and Microsoft Security Engine for Windows XP users through July 14, 2015. 

The extension, for enterprise users, applies to System Center Endpoint Protection, Forefront Client Security, Forefront Endpoint Protection and Windows Intune running on Windows XP. For consumers, this applies to Microsoft Security Essentials.

Security is essential, indeed. But the virus that you might get exposed to in the summer of next year can be avoided with a migration. Perhaps over the next 16 months, that many percentage points of user base will have moved off XP. If so, they'll still be hoping they don't have to retrain their workforce. That's been a cost of migration difficult to measure, but very real for HP 3000 owners.

Classic Shell, or the $5 per copy Start 8, work to restore the interface to a familiar look and feel. One reviewer on ZDNet said the Classic Shell restores "the interface patterns that worked and that Microsoft took away for reasons unknown. In other words, Classic Start Menu is just like the Start Menu you know and love, only more customizable."

The last major migration the HP 3000 went through was from MPE V to MPE/XL, when the hardware took a leap into PA-RISC chipsets and 32-bit computing. Around that time, Taurus Software's Dave Elward created Chameleon, aimed at letting managers employ both the Classic and MPE/XL command interfaces. Because HP had done the heavy lifting of creating a Classic Mode for older software to run inside of MPE/XL, the interface became the subject of great interest.

But Chameleon had a very different mission from software like Classic Shell. The MPE software was a means to let customers emulate the then-new PA-RISC HP 3000 operating system MPE/XL on Classic MPE V systems. It was a way to move ahead into the future with a gentle, cautious step. Small steps like the ones which Microsoft is resorting to -- a string of extensions -- introduce some caution with a different style.

Like HP and the 3000, Microsoft keeps talking about what the end of XP will look like to a customer. There's one similarity. Microsoft, like HP, wants to continue to control the ownership and activation of XP even after the support period ends. 

"Windows XP can still be installed and activated after end of support on April 8," according to a story on the ZDNet website. The article quotes a Microsoft spokesperson as explaining, "Computers running Windows XP will still work, they just won’t receive any new security updates. Support of Windows XP ends on April 8, 2014, regardless of when you install the OS." And the popular XP Mode will still allow users with old XP apps to run them on Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate.

And just like people started to squirrel away the documentation and patches for the 3000 -- the latter software resulting in a cease-and-desist agreement last year -- XP users are tucking away the perfectly legal "professionals and developers" installer for XP's Service Pack 3, which is a self-contained downloadable executable.

"I've backed that up in the same place I've backed up all my other patch files and installers," said David Gerwitz of CBS Interactive, "and now, if I someday need it, I have it." These kinds of things start to go missing, or just nearly impossible to find, once a vendor decides its users need to move on.