Microsoft will stop offering Windows XP in retail stores June 30, but at least two major computer manufacturers say school districts, colleges, and universities will be able to buy machines with the older operating system until January 2009, as Windows Vista—released last year—remains unpopular with many consumers.

Windows XP, the seven-year-old predecessor to Vista, continues to be a preferred option for many schools, because it allows them to run applications that don’t always work with Vista. Switching to Vista also would force school systems to spend thousands of dollars to update hardware that has proven incompatible with Microsoft’s new OS.

But school districts, businesses, and others who buy computers in bulk have another eight months to purchase Windows XP-ready computers from Dell and Hewlett-Packard. Both companies will use "downgrading rights" that are part of Windows Vista’s licensing agreement, selling desktops and laptops with XP instead of the newest Windows offering.

"Dell has the ability to exercise ‘Windows Vista downgrade rights’ on your behalf in the factory if your business is still reliant upon Windows XP and you’d prefer to have Windows XP Professional preinstalled on your PCs," according to a release on Dell’s  web site.

Trey Litel, a marketing manager for HP, said many school district IT managers have hesitated to embrace Windows Vista, because it could require an overhaul—or at least a significant upgrade—of a district’s computer infrastructure.

"XP is good with all applications," Litel said. "What scares [school] districts are compatibility issues."

When Vista was released in January 2007, Microsoft said the program would provide better accessibility and search options, more reliable security, and better network management.

An informal poll conducted at eSchool News Online last summer showed widespread skepticism of Windows Vista. When educators were asked if they expected to be using Vista by the beginning of 2008, 80 percent said no, while only 14 percent said yes. The other 6 percent said they were not sure.

Officials in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, one of the largest school districts in the country, said last summer that Vista worked "automatically" with only half of their existing computer programs—meaning IT managers would have to make adjustments for the other half of the school system’s programs.

Bob Moore, executive director of information technology for the Blue Valley Schools in Kansas, said school officials there are still taking a wait-and-see approach, because Vista remains a risky option.

"To be honest, our position is not much different than it was last July. We have no plans for large-scale conversion from XP to Vista," Moore said, adding that Blue Valley will buy about 2,000 new computers this summer with Windows XP, not Vista.

For school systems with limited technology resources, an across-the-board Windows update isn’t feasible while Vista remains incompatible with many essential applications, Moore said.

"There are a lot of school districts that simply won’t be able to run Vista," he said. "And I would say the tack we’re taking is similar to a lot of school districts across the country."

Sandy Kretzer, technology consulting coordinator for the Fairfax County school district, said officials there are working closely with Microsoft to adopt Vista before vendors stop offering XP at the start of 2009.

"We are aware of the XP deadline, [and Fairfax County] has support with Microsoft which extends beyond the consumer Windows XP deadline," Kretzer said in a statement. "We are awaiting Vista platform updates and support for many of our applications from our major vendors. We are in the planning stages for a phased migration to Vista."

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said May 7 that Vista sales have been "rapid" in recent months, despite the public perception that XP is a more reliable program and should be available until Vista proves compatible with more programs.

A spokesman for Microsoft said the company’s agreement to offer XP until January is standard practice for software distributors who want to give customers time to adapt to new products. Users have the choice of downgrading to Windows Professional, Windows XP Tablet Edition, or Windows XP Professional.

"It’s standard practice for original equipment manufacturers, retailers, and system builders to continue offering the previous version of Windows for a certain period of time after a new version is released," said the spokesman, who did not want his named used in this story. "Dell is exercising [its] right to offer Windows XP as an option, though we expect the majority of [Dell’s] customers to continue to order Windows Vista."

Concerns over the switch to Vista are not isolated to U.S. schools. Becta, a British education and technology agency, published a report in January saying that "Microsoft Vista … is not recommended, and mixed Windows-based operating environments should be avoided."

"Our objective is to make sure schools and colleges get the best possible value for their money," Stephen Lucey, Becta’s executive director of strategic technologies, said in a statement. "Our advice is to be sure there is a strong business case before upgrading to these products, as the costs are significant and the benefits remain unclear."

Links:

Fairfax County Public Schools

Blue Valley Schools

Becta