Windows XP demise gives small business a tech headache
Millions of small businesses around the world who use Microsoft's ever-popular Windows XP are facing a tricky situation.
What should they do now that Microsoft has pulled the plug and ended technical support and security updates for the venerable operating system?
Should they face the expense and upheaval of upgrading to new systems, or stick to what they know and hope for the best?
Despite advance notice of the decision, the 13-year-old XP is still used on almost a third of all personal computers worldwide.
And many businesses have only recently, and grudgingly, begun to consider their options.
The UK government is so concerned it is paying Microsoft £5.5m to extend support for departmental computers using Windows XP, Office 2003 and Exchange 2003 for a further 12 months beyond the 8 April cut-off date.
Rosemayre Barry of London-based business, The Pet Chip Company, is one manager who is puzzled and more than a little annoyed that she has been faced with the XP dilemma.
"XP has been excellent," she says. "I'm very put out. When you purchase a product you don't expect it to be discontinued, especially when it's one of [Microsoft's] most used products."
But the code-base underpinning XP started to be outdated, Microsoft says.
"We live in a much more mobile world than 13 years ago; hardware has never been so cost-effective and computing requirements and capabilities have moved on beyond anyone's expectations," says Microsoft's UK Windows commercial chief, David Rodger.
Technology such as touchscreens on smartphones and tablets now take advantage of hardware, software, and processing power that wasn't around in 2001, he adds.
While there's nothing to stop businesses continuing with the operating system, Mark Brown, director of information security at auditing firm Ernst & Young, warns that doing so leaves them increasingly vulnerable to hacking.
"Hackers will use Microsoft's move to cease support for XP as an opportunity to take advantage of organisations that haven't got their house in order," Mr Brown says.
While cyber security companies say they will continue to provide Windows XP updates for their antivirus and firewall software, this is unlikely to bridge the void left by the end of Microsoft support, they warn.
"The older the operating system the greater the security risks," says Mike Foreman, general manager for small business at computer security company AVG.
Trust in the cloud?
Some experts think that small businesses can use the end of XP support as a spur to move from a locally-stored software model to one involving web-based services.
There has certainly been plenty of hype around "the cloud" over the last year or so.
With devices such as Google's Chromebook coming on to the market, businesses can now operate completely online. In theory.
A firm could use web-based email, productivity and collaboration software from companies like Google, Microsoft, and Citrix, and back up all their data to a cloud storage provider such as Dropbox or Box.com.
But for some small businesses, this radical approach could be a step too far, because it makes them almost completely reliant on internet connectivity.
This can be patchy, particularly in rural areas.
Another potential concern is the reliability of the cloud service provider, so businesses need to keep their eyes wide open, IT consultant Adrian Mars argues.
When you entrust your data to a third party, you have to be comfortable with certain risks, he says. For example, online services may not always be available due to unforeseen problems with the service provider.
"If your data is backed up to the cloud, can you trust that your data won't get corrupted?"
Such concerns may convince many businesses to stick with locally stored business productivity software, such as Office, Microsoft's suite that includes programs like Word and Excel, rather than Office 365, the web-based version of the product.
They could then use their own local data back-ups, he says.
Along with its withdrawal of support for Windows XP, Microsoft has also ceased support for Office 2003.
The legacy headache
The option of sticking with XP after the 8 April shut-off date was not a risk that Rosemayre Barry wanted to take.
Without Microsoft support "if something goes wrong, you've got nowhere to go," she says.
She considered transferring her company's IT infrastructure over to Apple, but Macs weren't a good fit, she says.
"If I'd had more time and money I'd have gone with Apple. I just did not want to put the company though all that extra expense."
Apple computers are very powerful and well built, but can be three times the price of Windows PCs, says Andy Buss, a European consulting manager for IT analyst group IDC.
"There are plenty of PCs around at low cost that are capable of running Windows 7 or Windows 8," Mr Buss says. "My advice is to upgrade to Windows 8."
The Pet Chip Company went with the industry consensus, and opted to upgrade to Windows 8.1, which costs between £100-to-£190 per package, depending on the version.
She also replaced the company's three PCs as well as the software.
"When you are a company you don't have the luxury of looking around," says Ms Berry. "I wanted to get it sorted out as quickly as I could."
What other alternatives are there?
Small businesses could switch to an open-source Linux-based operating system, such as Ubuntu, Red Hat or Suse, advises Mr Buss.
But they have a very different look and feel to Windows and would take a deal of getting used to, he believes.
Biting the bullet
Unsurprisingly, Microsoft maintains companies will be better off without XP - they get to sell millions of pounds worth of new software after all.
"Few could have dreamed of the technological wonders we see today," says the technology giant's David Rodger.
"We are living at a time when the potential to innovate and create has never been greater, and with the right technology, small businesses are well positioned to benefit."
That may well be true, but transferring to a new operating system, upgrading software and hardware, and safely transferring valuable customer data to new systems, is still a hassle many struggling small businesses could do without.