Microsoft warned enterprise customers this week that the migration path from XP to Windows 7 won't be any easier than it is to Vista, and offered recommendations for how companies can move from older versions of Windows to one of its newer client OSes.
"Moving from XP to Windows 7 is not a magic bullet," said Gavriella Schuster, a senior director of Windows product management, in an interview Tuesday. "You have the same level of application compatibility from XP to Windows Vista or Windows 7."
Enterprise customers who would have had to replace applications in a move from XP to Vista will still have the same task when they move to Windows 7, she said. However, if customers have already made the leap to Vista, it will be easier to move applications to Windows 7 because it's on essentially the same code base, she said.
In a company blog post attributed to Schuster, Microsoft made recommendations to business customers to help them decide whether they should upgrade to Vista now or wait for Windows 7, which is expected later this year or, at the latest, early next year.
Many companies chose to stick with Windows XP instead of upgrading to Vista, causing Microsoft to keep new PCs with XP pre-installed in the market longer than originally planned. Once Windows 7 is released, which most expect before the end of the year, Microsoft will have two OSes built on essentially the same code base in the market at the same time, and Schuster said customers have asked the vendor how to choose between them.
To no one's surprise, Microsoft recommends that business customers still running XP or older versions of the OS upgrade as soon as possible, citing security and remote-management capabilities in both Vista and Windows 7 that weren't baked into the original XP release.
XP also was released before the majority of PCs in enterprises were laptops, and both Vista and Windows 7 have features that allow IT managers to better manage and secure laptops and mobile devices for the type of mobile workforce found in many enterprises today, Schuster said.
"When you think about Windows XP in that context -- it came out in 2001, when less than 10 percent of devices were laptops," she said. "There wasn't ubiquitous broadband. There weren't the levels of compliance and regulatory requirements. There weren't data protections."
What may be surprising in Microsoft's message, however, is that the company doesn't care which of its newer OSes customers move to -- Windows Vista or Windows 7 -- as long as they do what's best for their individual IT environments.
"What strikes me is that Microsoft is being fairly pragmatic about what the options are for customers," said Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC. "Microsoft seems to recognize the reality that customers aren't going to do what Microsoft tells them to do. They're going to do what's right for them."
Indeed, Schuster said Microsoft is "agnostic" about which OS customers upgrade to. She said Microsoft is just trying to set expectations for any upgrade that may be planned or in progress, so that customers aren't surprised by problems or complexities they may encounter.
Customers should examine their application and hardware environments closely to see which would be the best fit for them. "It really depends on the environment," Schuster said.
She did have some advice for customers depending on what OS they are currently running, and whether or not they have begun migrating to Vista already.
For customers still running Windows 2000, "they clearly need to move fast and need to move to Windows Vista," she said. Extended support for Windows 2000 ends in April 2010, and it will take a company 12 to 18 months to complete the upgrade. "They can't wait for Windows 7," Schuster said.
For companies that are halfway through a migration to Windows Vista Service Pack 1, they should continue that migration as planned, she said. However, if a company has begun piloting Vista and is not yet halfway through the migration process, moving to Vista Service Pack 2 -- which should be generally available in April -- is a better option.
Some customers have already said they plan to wait for Windows 7, and Microsoft is not recommending they change that course.
When Windows 7 is available, it won't be the first time Microsoft will have two OSes on the same code base in the business market at the same time. Windows 2000 Pro and Windows XP Pro were built on the same code base as well, and many business customers on Windows 98 waited for XP instead of moving to 2000, Gillen noted.
Windows 7 is essentially the second release of Vista, an incremental update that will include some usability features but not "cause a rift for Windows Vista applications" during a migration, he said.
It will essentially be about as painful for customers to move from XP to Vista as it will be to move from XP to Windows 7, Gillen said, corroborating Schuster's warning. He agreed, too, that a migration from Vista to Windows 7 will be far easier.
However, Gillen said that Microsoft's argument that customers should pick one or the other is more in its own self-interest than an actual necessity for enterprise customers.
"[Microsoft] is trying to use every lever they have to try to encourage customers to move," he said. "But customers are going to make their own decisions based on [their own needs]." Some customers may find they can stay on XP indefinitely as long as they can continue to patch and support their applications on it. Microsoft ends extended support for XP in April 2014.
One company that has already migrated to Windows Vista, and plans to upgrade to Windows 7 as well, is computer reseller Heartland Technology Solutions in Harlan, Iowa. Heartland is a Microsoft partner that participated in the Vista beta-testing program.
Arlin Sorensen, CEO and president of Heartland, said that Vista increased worker productivity, particularly because of its the improved desktop search functionality.
Heartland serviced about 1,900 individual small-business customers last year, each with its own set of unique IT needs, he said. However, one of the most common problems customers needed help with was finding documents or files they couldn't locate.
"This is where the ability to search more quickly and efficiently for files immensely improved productivity," Sorensen said.
"The whole Vista experience has helped in simple but very productive ways," he said. "There's a significant amount of time people waste looking for documents."
Heartland is a small company with about 75 desktops, so it was far easier for the company to migrate to Vista from XP than it would be for a large enterprise, Sorensen acknowledged. "We're definitely more nimble than an enterprise company would be," he said.