China's Baidu search engine yesterday said that it's working with Microsoft on a way to upgrade the country's massive number of aged Windows XP PCs to Windows 10.
In a short Q&A posted on a page devoted to Windows 10 -- part of the deal Microsoft announced Wednesday to promote the new OS in China -- Baidu noted that Windows XP machines could not currently upgrade to Windows 10.
But the answer Baidu posted sure made it sound like it and Microsoft are trying to figure out a way around the limitation.
"Currently Microsoft's official message is that temporarily can not support a direct upgrade to XP systems Windows 10," said Baidu's answer to a Can-I-upgrade-from-XP-to-10 question. (The English translation was acquired via Google Translate, which often results in a fractured result.)
A translation tool from Systran, a South Korean company, came up with something similar: "At present the Microsoft official information is, temporarily cannot support the XP system to promote to Windows directly 10."
The word temporarily in both translation was striking, hinting that the ineligibility of Windows XP is not permanent. In fact, the next sentence in Baidu's response to the canned question spelled that out.
"We are working with Microsoft to seek negotiated solutions," Google Translate spit out.
"We were consulting with Microsoft together seek for the solution," echoed Systran.
"We are working with Microsoft to find a solution," added another machine translation tool from SDL, a U.K.-based firm.
What that solution might be is unclear. But the reason behind the effort is all about numbers.
Windows XP, which exited support in April 2014, still has a hold on a large portion of the Chinese PC market. According to Baidu, which tracks the operating systems powering devices that reach its search engine, 38% of the systems that accessed its site last month ran Windows XP. The 2001 operating system was second only to Windows 7, whose share was pegged at 49.2% by Baidu, and more than six times that of 2012's Windows 8, which boasted just 5.6%.
With 600 million active users -- a figure Microsoft quoted -- Baidu's 38% figure for Windows XP would represent 228 million PCs. That's assuming page views, the method Baidu uses to track operating system shares, were distributed evenly among machines.
Other sources show a large XP population in China, too. For August, U.S. metrics vendor Net Applications pegged Windows XP with a 20.9% user share -- a measurement based on unique visitors to several tens of thousands of websites, and so more analogous to devices than Baidu's online activity via visits -- and Windows 7 with 64.3%. Net Applications had Windows 10 at a stronger-than-Baidu 4.1%.
Microsoft knows that China has an XP problem. In the Redmond, Wash. company's Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) tracker, China accounted for two-thirds of all IE6 users last month. (IE6 is a useful proxy for XP because it was the browser originally bundled with the operating system.)
Microsoft also has a piracy problem in China. It's attempted to stem the flood of counterfeit copies of Windows with a variety of initiatives over the years, including lawsuits against Chinese vendors for allegedly installing bootlegs on PCs, running ad campaigns that tout the merits of legitimate software; stopping sales of Windows 8 boxed copies; and a 2012 project where it purchased 169 PCs in Chinese shops only to find that every one of the machines ran pirated Windows.
Windows XP in China has long been identified with piracy. If Microsoft could get those 200-million-plus PCs that use Baidu onto a legitimate copy of Windows 10, it might be able to eek out some revenue from their owners, perhaps through app sales from its Windows Store market.
If Microsoft and Baidu do come up with a solution to China's XP problem, it might repudiate Microsoft's assertion that it will not give pirates a free Windows 10 ride.
In March, Microsoft said that customers running ersatz Windows would get a pardon, and be allowed to upgrade to Windows 10. But it quickly backtracked, first saying counterfeit copies would be watermarked, then two months later issuing what has been its most definitive statement: No Windows 10 for pirates.
But even then Microsoft left itself wiggle room.
Terry Myerson, Microsoft's top Windows executive, said in mid-May, "We are planning very attractive Windows 10 upgrade offers for ... customers running one of their older devices in a non-genuine state." Non-genuine is Microsoft-speak for pirated software.
It's certainly possible that when Baidu talked about working with its new partner on getting XP PCs on Windows 10, it was referring to Myerson's offer, of a discounted Windows 10, not a free upgrade.
Microsoft has never said it was impossible to upgrade from XP to 10, although it would admittedly be a technical precedent, since Microsoft has never offered an upgrade from N-4, where N is the newest version. But it could sidestep the problem by providing Chinese XP users a discounted upgrade to Windows 7, something that is supported. Once on Windows 7, users could be prompted to take advantage of the free Windows 10 upgrade. With an even more sophisticated setup, it might be possible to sequence the two steps -- XP to 7, then 7 to 10 -- automatically.
Microsoft did not immediately reply to questions and a request to clarify how it plans to address Windows XP in China.