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XP's 'Last Day' Less Final Than Gates'

The past week has been a momentous one. Co-founder Bill Gates officially retired. A few days later, Windows XP was retired.

Officially, Monday, June 30 was the last day you could get Windows XP. Kinda, sorta, maybe … well, not really.

It's true that XP will no longer be sold by Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) to PC OEMs, but those parties can still continue to sell off their existing inventory. Additionally, Microsoft has left a lot of loopholes that will enable those who really want to get XP to do so for quite a while yet.

For example, so-called "system builders" – typically smaller firms that custom build PCs for clients – will still be able to purchase copies of XP until January 31, 2009. In addition, the large PC OEMs like HP and Dell will continue to offer customers the ability to buy new PCs with Windows Vista and have them "downgraded" to run XP instead – however, it costs the same as high-end versions of Vista.

That means that, despite all the tears shed over XP's lingering demise, the aging operating system is well entrenched with customers and will be available in one way or another for at least another two years – and so, to some extent, it will continue to compete with Vista.

Whatever customers do, however, Microsoft says that long-term support for XP is not an issue.

"We recently released Service Pack 3 for Windows XP and we will continue to provide security updates and other critical updates for Windows XP until April, 2014 [as part of Microsoft's extended support]. Our ongoing support for Windows XP is the result of our recognition that people keep their Windows-based PCs for many years," Bill Veghte, senior vice president for Windows and Online Business at Microsoft said in an open letter posted online and sent to customers last week.

XP still equals dollar signs

Even though Microsoft might love to kill off XP, it keeps stumbling upon market opportunities where it just can't resist the tug of a dollar to be made.

Indeed, this spring Microsoft shipped XP Service Pack 3 (SP3) – reputedly the last service pack for the seven-year-old system. Also this spring, the company announced it will provide versions of XP Home for PC OEMs to offer on what have come to be referred to as ultra low-cost PCs or ULCPCs, which includes the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative.

"All OEMs, including major OEMs, have this option," Veghte said.

That means, XP may be available in the marketplace for a long time yet, as consumers and businesses buy ULCPCs as mobile devices or as less expensive clients on networks. Those devices, which Microsoft now terms NetTops (ultra low-cost desktops) and NetBooks (ultra low-cost notebooks) rather than the ungainly and confusing ULCPC moniker, will be available with XP until June 30, 2010.

Because the cutoff date has been a moving target, though, many analysts believe that date could shift further, especially if Windows 7 is late – a relatively common occurrence for Microsoft system releases.

Driving most of the interest in keeping XP alive and available are corporate IT departments, some of which are thinking seriously of skipping Vista (even after the release of Vista SP1 this spring) and waiting until the next version of Windows, codenamed Windows 7, ships. That date is currently planned for late next year or early 2010 – approximately three years after Vista first shipped, the company has said repeatedly.

Still, many analysts recommend that users not skip Vista to wait for Windows 7.

"You're probably better off running something [Vista] that is at least still in the main focus of the company," Michael Cherry, lead analyst for operating systems at Directions on Microsoft, told InternetNews.com.

In fact, XP's age is a liability for customers, say many analysts.

"If you really want XP, you'll be able to get it for a while," Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies, told InternetNews.com. That may not be the case, though, for third-party device drivers, especially as Microsoft works harder to phase out XP.

"On new hardware there will be some situations, particularly graphics boards, where there won't be drivers for XP," Kay said.

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