Microsoft ended support for its Windows XP desktop operating system (OS) in April, closing a chapter on one of the most successful products in the company’s history. In technology, I tend to like these line-in-the-sand moments, even if they cause a bit of chaos. This one does, at the very least, force businesses to think about where they are and what technologies might help them reach their goals faster and serve their customers better.

Though no longer supported, Windows XP is still widely used. Last year, a Forrester Research survey found that 20 percent of all small-business computers in Western Europe and North America are still running the OS Microsoft supported for an unprecedented 12.5 years.

My dad’s small business in Lewisville is among them. His company provides specialized electrical upgrades to hospital operating rooms. He has talked about an XP upgrade for the three machines in his company, but dreads the time, money, and learning curve involved with, in his view, fixing something that really isn’t broken.

Parks Associates analyst Patrice Samuels says small businesses will find leaving Windows XP behind can be tough. “On one hand, many of these companies have invested in XP-specific applications, and upgrading to new computers or new operating systems will likely require a substantial investment,” she writes on her blog. “On the other hand, these companies have much to lose if company data or resources are compromised.”


GETTING OUT FROM UNDER XP
Some larger businesses, city governments, and banks have left Windows XP running in places for a long time. It is estimated that more than 90 percent of the nation’s bank ATMs run Windows XP; many of those banks have arranged for extended support contracts directly with Microsoft.

In downtown Dallas, Windows XP is on Stanley Victrum’s mind, too. Victrum is the Dallas County chief information officer, tasked with maintaining and modernizing a network of 6,000 computer systems that keep Dallas humming along. The county is set to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars getting out from under XP, as it has more than 1,700 systems running the OS.

XP is a relic from a time when desktop applications stayed on the desktop and phones were something you only used for conversations.

Victrum says his office has been in talks with Microsoft to obtain service patches for those systems, which include Dallas’ LiveScan Systems, used to electronically record, store, and compare fingerprints. “If a PC stays connected to our data network, it has to be upgraded,” he says. “The big issue here is security.”

Of course, Victrum says, the county’s IT systems have firewalls, virus protection, and other tools to help protect sensitive data, but keeping an unsupported OS isn’t worth the risk.

Half of the Dallas County computers running XP can be upgraded with more memory, and then the software can be updated to Windows 7—which isn’t the most recent Microsoft OS, but the one the IT department is most comfortable with, Victrum explains. The remaining 800-plus systems will be replaced, he says, though they’ll try to reuse as many keyboards, monitors, and other peripherals as possible to keep costs down. “We’re going to try to stay ahead of the upgrade cycles as best as we possible can,” Victrum says.


THE XP DYNASTY
Windows XP was the crown jewel in Microsoft’s operating system empire for years following its release in October 2001. The launch event in New York for the OS was such a big deal, it featured speeches by Bill Gates, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and television host Regis Philbin.

For years, XP has been the symbol of computing stability for businesses and consumers alike. Especially for consumer PC users, Windows XP was a welcome upgrade from Windows ME, which PC World magazine named one of the “25 Worst Tech Products of All Time.”

But as stable as XP has been, it is a relic from a time when desktop applications stayed on the desktop and phones were something you only used for conversations.

Paul Kimbel, director of Microsoft’s Dallas Technology Center, gives many compelling reasons for Windows XP users to upgrade, but my two favorite reasons involve cars and kids.

Kimbel likens sticking with XP to driving an older car. Older cars still work. They may still run well. But you may have to go to a third-party mechanic instead of the dealership for repairs and parts might be tougher to find, he says. You might miss some of the newer safety features and technologies in a newer auto—things like airbags, Bluetooth, and satellite navigation.

Another thought for business owners, courtesy of Kimbel: “What does your technology say about you?” As workforces age, Kimbel says, they’re being replaced with Millennials who were born after 1980. “They’re not interested in XP,” he says. “Think about how old they were when XP came out? They look at that and say, ‘Why would I want to work with a company that can’t keep up to date with technology?’”


DESKTOP DEPARTURES
Speaking of keeping up to date, business owners would do well to consider what will happen next when they do move on from XP. Security updates, and Microsoft’s support, stops in April 2017 for Windows Vista and in January 2020 for Windows 7. Microsoft stops adding new features and service packs for Windows 7 in January 2015, but will continue to issue security updates for five more years. New features and service packs for Windows Vista stopped in 2012, and its five-year countdown to obsolescence began then.

In about five years, Dallas County’s Victrum, and millions of other business users who leave XP behind this summer, will be in a similar spot, steering a fleet of unsupported PCs that need attention. Perhaps a better question is one from Microsoft’s ’90s-era ad campaign: “Where do you want to go today?” This OS turbulence could be just the right time to evaluate options that are centered around mobile devices and cloud computing.

Even Microsoft knows its future is tied to building mobile software and services. In late April, the company bought Nokia’s mobile handset division for $7.52 billion—a deal eight months in the making. The move is aimed at helping Microsoft catch up in the smartphone market, an area where industry researcher IDC predicts the company will have just a 4 percent worldwide marketshare this year—well behind Apple and Google.

Desktop PCs, once the central cogs in the machinery of business, are on the decline. According to research firm Gartner Inc. , 2013 represented the single-largest year-on-year sales decline in PC market history. Meanwhile, Gartner reports, worldwide sales of smartphones to end-users increased 42.3 percent in 2013 to 968 million units.

For small businesses especially, cloud-based applications and services can help break the dependance on desktop PCs and the new standard of a five-year upgrade cycle, where nothing is guaranteed to be compatible from one generation of desktop OS to the next.

Google, for example, has created a series of barebones laptops called Chromebooks that rely heavily on Internet-based applications. Chromebooks provide a way to get business applications, cloud storage, and Internet connectivity in a package that costs less than $500 per person. Windows applications can be delivered to those devices using technology from virtualization specialists such as Citrix and VMware.

The desktop-free life won’t work for everyone. City governments and larger companies may instead opt to work in a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), where the operating system and applications are hosted on servers and delivered via the network to older PCs, tablets, or so-called thin clients. Using VDI, you can stay in a Windows environment, but save the thousand of hours and dollars it takes to upgrade individual machines.

Taking VDI a step further, Amazon recently launched Amazon WorkSpaces, a cloud-based service that delivers a fully functioning Microsoft-based office desktop environment to the device of your choice. Amazon WorkSpaces is shaking things up because it costs about 50 percent of on-premise VDI, according to the JP Morgan Cloud Survey.

The Windows XP upgrade cycle has caused a little bit of chaos, but it may also awaken some businesses to mobile Internet and cloud computing, too. What possiblities might your business unlock if it could could run any application from any era on any device from anywhere?

Those possibilities are on Victrum’s mind at Dallas County.

“Our goal is to be mobile, online, and integrated,” he says. “That’s not anything to do with XP support ending. We know that’s just the way of the world.”