Saturday, April 05, 2014

Would you ditch a PC running Windows XP because Microsoft is stopping support from April 8, 2014?

For last 6 months or so there is an intense debate and advisory from various sections of media, some of them acting on behalf of certain IT vendors also, that it would owe fully dangerous to continue to use Windows XP PC after the D-day.

Here is my insight in to the situation:

Windows XP has been in existence for last 12 years. This period is perhaps longer than any other Windows version so far. And also, it is one of the most admired and widely use PC operating system on earth. Even as on today, more than 30% of PCs run Windows XP.

So, should people scrap the PC or donate it to a charity or do something else?

There have been various answers from various people. Some of the most popular are listed below:

1.Upgrade it to Windows 8.1: Well, this may not be possible for most of the PCs because of old hardware or cost of upgrade. In fact, cost of upgrade is perhaps more than double of the current value of the PC.

2. Upgrade to Windows 7: If we decide to ignore the cost of Upgrade then this may be possible to do. But, key question is why should one put in money to keep running a dying hardware? It could be that application running on the PC is not upgraded for Windows 8 and it's mission critical to keep them running, as long as it is possible.

Well, this is easier said than done because there is no 'in-place' upgrade possible from XP to Windows 7. So, one has to use various tools provided by Microsoft to chart out the upgrade plan. This is a long and time consuming path; but there is hardly any option. There are some vendors who claim that they are able to make it easier if you agree to 'buy' their solution. Well, if you have enough money one can try it. But, in practice, no one has that much money.

Once done, one can run the mission critical application on Windows XP mode of Windows 7. So, this is doable but very costly in terms of money, time and effort. And no one is sure how long the PC will last. It may die sooner than you thought was possible; or a part can fail for which no replacement is available - coming back to 'almost dead' situation.

3. Run Windows XP on a Linux Virtual machine: Well this approach is not for the people with weak heart. Robolinux claims to provide one click install of Windows XP on top of Robolinux. This is possible to do provided you have a good hardware i.e., it should have enough memory and a processor capable to run a virtual machine.

So, this approach is ruled out for people who are running Windows XP on a old processor or with say 256 or 512 MB memory.

Assuming this is not a problem, but tell me what's benefit of doing this? Well, it is claimed that if Windows XP is running on top of a Linux OS then one would be saved from the antivirus and antimalware because it is running on top of a Linux - which is by default very secure. I doubt this claim unless one wants to run Windows XP in isolation i.e., it won't connect to Internet at all. If it is then one would require all security gears to protect itself from all kinds of attacks. It's like a baby dying within a iron cage.

Also, making this work requires major work in terms of first formatting the existing hard disk or getting a new one. First install Robolinux on it. Then donate the developers to get One Click virtual machine install for Windows XP. Then install Windows XP, install the required applications, update the XP with all patches and so on. Too much of a work for the promise of no viruses - a claim which itself seems doubtful if one is going to connect to Internet.

4. Switch to Linux: Well this topic requires lot of work on part of the user. In most cases small and medium business owner is not able to do this himself. It requires hiring of a Linux consultant, at least for couple of months to start with; and subsequently on a call basis for migration, user training and technical support. It's not easy or cheap to do this. Also, there is no Linux distribution worth its name who is as even close to Microsoft Windows as a Desktop Operating System. Of course, many are trying for a long time - and I've tried many of them and have given up for various reasons.

Notable among them are Ubuntu, Mint with Cinnamon and there are many of them out there. None of them come closer to Windows for following reasons:

a. Usability: Some basis short cuts that Windows user use on a regular basis do not work in Linux viz., Alt+Arrow keys to Select text, Ctrl+Alt+Del to reboot a hung PC (even Linux hangs, believe me) and so on. Also, Libre Office is a disappointment compared to Microsoft Office on a ongoing basis. I have tried using Libre Office and its earlier avatar a number of times but each time I've given up for some reason or other. It simply does not measure up on various counts e.g., speed of execution, office file compatibility, formatting, absence of key features etc. etc. etc.

b. Poor Design of Linux applications: Say one is using Lotus Notes Mail client in FireFox - it seems to work properly. But, moment you try to attach a file that is not on the local PC you are out of luck. It just can't attach a file that is located on Windows or Linux (Samba) server. File Manager does not remember Samba shares. It is not able to display directory structure in a way similar to Windows File Manager. Fonts and color schemes look poor - challenging not only aesthetic sense but also wasting precious space on the screen. Wine is able to run Windows applications but if that Window application wants to access files on Windows Server or Linux (Samba) server - you are out of luck.

Of course, if I don't mention this I will be doing injustice to Linux community. Linux has evolved by leaps and bounds in last 5 to 7 years. So many features have been added - making it almost as good as Windows, feature wise or hardware support wise. But, it simply lacks finesse or ease of doing work. There is an immediate drop of productivity (even after a good Linux training). 

One notable Linux distribution from India which seems to offer alternative to Windows XP users is named Tiguin - Tiger and Penguin together in one body. Well, I must say that it's a good effort, particularly coming from a small town of Gujarat. I gave it a decent try and it is still installed on my Windows XP machine as a dual boot. Installation is almost flow-less - I would give more than 90% mark for installation. It's a distribution targeted to small and medium businesses of India. It offers all frequently used application under Windows on a Linux  For those application which are available only on Windows like Tally (accounting software) and Microsoft Excel (required for Tally to do export reports in Excel format) it offer them either out of the box or easy installation without end user to learn complex Linux commands. In summary it makes Linux as close to Windows XP as is possible. It works on subscription model for updates and technical support. I tried taking their help for few technical problems I faced but it was average i.e., nothing great.

In few areas in spite of its best foot forward it is not able to come closer to Windows because of inherent limitations of Linux mentioned above. Also, one shortcoming I noticed is that out of the box it uses old version of FireFox (22 against current 27), Libre Office and so on. Upon inquiry Enjay (developer of Tiguin) said they have chose 'stable' versions over 'current' versions. Well, I don't agree with this.

5. Switch to a Windows XP clone: This is a little known fact but indeed there is an open source project that has been trying to write an almost exact clone of Windows XP. It's called React Operating System. Many people are working on it. It's specs are quite close to Windows XP. Few alpha versions are available for trial but sadly it is advancing very slowly for want of funds, I suppose. I've downloaded version Its live CD did not work on few PCs I tried. Version 0.4 (community edition) is likely come out very soon. How soon? No body knows. But, there is some hope that after say one year something credible may come out. Keep hoping.

Is there any way out for Windows XP users?
Yes, and it is very simple. Keep using Windows XP as long as hardware keeps working.

Why am I saying this?

First, Windows XP has hardened itself in last twelve years. It's very stable, usable and very secure. And there is no reason (at least today) to ditch it in favour of something else in a hurry.

My guess is that we can make it work at least till end of PC's life. By no stretch of imagination this period would go beyond 3 years - on average of course.

Microsoft will keep supplying updates to its own antivirus Microsoft Security Essentials till July 2015. Avast has announced that they will provide support to Windows XP at least for three years. See official text below from Avast.
Are you aware that AVAST will be supporting Windows XP for at least the next three years, by creating protection modules and detections specifically designed to cover Windows XP vulnerabilities and other security problems? (We will be doing this!)

So, why worry or hurry now? There is no need to open wallet and make payment to buy new PC or purchase Windows 7 or 8.1 and of course, new Office 2013 and so on.

What do you say?