Is the Decline of Windows XP the Rise of Google Chrome?

Published on Author Eli Fennell

Microsoft doesn’t want users on Windows XP.  Official support for the platform ends next year, with the option for some enterprise customers to pay a price for ongoing critical support.  Microsoft wants users to upgrade to a newer version of the OS, preferably Windows 8 but Windows 7 if not, heck they would settle for a sale of Vista if anyone would buy it.

Windows XP is long in the tooth, and we can’t blame Microsoft for losing their enthusiasm for their too-successful child or for wanting to push users to new versions of their software.  For some users it may even work.  But it won’t work for everyone, and that’s where Microsoft could be shooting itself in the foot and lending a big hand to Google’s efforts with Chrome.  Why?  Because now, ending support for Windows XP is a game of chicken with Google, and Google isn’t blinking.

What does Google care if users want to languish on an old Microsoft OS?  Google’s a web company, and the one truly successful native application for Windows that they have pushed is Chrome, a web browser-come-operating-system.  Apart from Chrome, Google has rarely ventured to make native applications for the desktop, and the ones they have often underwhelm (e.g. the Google Play Music Manager), but Chrome is the grand exception, because the browser is the gateway to the web, and that is where Google shines.

Windows XP users still enjoy the latest version of Chrome on most devices, including the newer Chrome OS-like elements such as the Chrome Web Store and Chrome App Drawer, while Internet Explorer users are languishing on version 8.  Microsoft ending official support for Windows XP will mean more work for Google to keep Chrome updated and secured (they will have to work around issues they can longer count on Microsoft for), but it doesn’t torpedo their efforts.  It may do so for other browser developers, perhaps, and may even leave Chrome the “Last Man Standing”.

So it’s not surprising Google is offering to continue support for Chrome for Windows XP through at least 2015.  Large numbers of people will not immediately upgrade their XP PC’s, and Google needs these users to continue to be valuable Chrome and Google users, whether or not they ever even buy another PC.  Google has also discontinued support for older versions of IE, including all versions available to Windows XP users, in an effort to be able to offer the best online experience by nudging users onto more updated browsers.  Google users on XP machines literally have to use a newer browser than the one Microsoft gave them to enjoy Google services properly.

Google’s support for Chrome on Windows XP has already attracted a substantial number of users both private and enterprise, who need the latest browser security, features, and performance on their older software.  It enjoys especially strong penetration in certain markets, South America for example, where many PC’s used by consumers, businesses, schools, and government offices alike still run Windows XP and have uncertain upgrade cycles.

Some of these markets are still targeted by software developers, who until next year have benefited from continued development support for Windows XP but will soon have to remove that compatibility or face unsecured elements, unpatched bugs, and other issues endemic to dead platforms.  Where Google’s Chrome efforts stand to benefit from this extended development cycle for XP users isn’t just in browser usage, but in the area of platform usage and development.  With software development for the XP platform coming to an end, app usage and development may shift to the Chrome platform, which offers a consistent development platform for virtually all PC’s (Windows, Mac, and Chrome OS; this list may expand to include Android eventually).

Desktop Apps for Chrome, featured in the Chrome Web Store earlier this year, allows developers to create native-style applications that run on Chrome, but by default work offline, run in their own system-level windows outside the browser, and have access to PC hardware in a way normally associated with true native applications.  In many cases they can even use native x86 and ARM native code running in a sandbox through Chrome’s Native Client (NativeCL), giving developers a greater freedom to use web or native language development.

Windows XP still has over 30% of global market share for desktop OS’s (behind Windows 7), and while those numbers will decline, there will not be an overnight abandonment of XP by users.  For many people, the cost of an upgrade is either unattainable, or not worth viewed as worth it as long as their PC can do certain basic things, chief of which is web browsing.  Chrome Desktop Apps may well come to offer the richest ecosystem for these users who still need some desktop applications, especially in environments where Windows XP needs to work in concert with newer versions of Windows or with other platforms

And in a year, two years, or whenever Google does officially end support for Chrome for XP, and those users have had time to adjust to Chrome not just as a browser but as a platform (whether consuming or creating applications), and they need to upgrade, will they go with a newer version of Windows, or with Chrome OS?  Even if they do go with Windows, will they choose to live in the Microsoft ecosystem, or the Google ecosystem through the Chrome Browser, which now is a virtual twin of Chrome OS on every major PC platform?

Either way it shakes out, Google wins and Microsoft loses.  Microsoft wants to sell new operating system licenses, and has never fully transitioned to a web-first company, so for them a zombie Windows XP machine lingering on means the loss of a license.  Breathing new life into these old PC’s would be bad for business, giving users an excuse to stay hooked on it even longer, but they can’t simply flip a switch and make everyone upgrade either.  Yet despite them, for some users, these devices will have an extended lease on life.

In the past, these machines would have predictably languished and eventually die with the platform owners no longer supporting them, but with Google, a web-first company, maintaining a development ecosystem of its own, Microsoft’s loss may be Google’s gain.  To continue using Windows XP, Chrome will become a virtual requirement for using the web, and will offer virtually the only source for desktop apps that are still supported, both by the platform owner and an active community of third-party developers.  These users may be more likely to continue using Chrome on any future devices, and more likely to consider Chrome OS devices in the future as well.

Google may be about to pull a coup d’etat on Microsoft, snatching a significant share of the desktop market right out from under them through their own lingering devices, transforming millions of Windows XP users into Chrome OS users through the automagic of silent browser updates.  The web is a development platform Microsoft does not control, where new players are shaping the market like Amazon, Facebook, and Google.  Wherever the web can be supported for a large number of users, especially with the latest features and security of modern browsers, one will likely find all three of these plugging away long after most developers have closed shop and moved on to the next big thing.

The question is, can Google keep other developers plugging away at it as well by sneaking their own platform in through the back door when the cat’s away?