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In theory, at least, the end of life for free support for Windows XP represents a boon for solution providers as organizations rush to upgrade systems before the looming April 8 deadline.

But, as is often the case with all things Microsoft, there’s a lot of nuance when it comes to understanding how big an opportunity the theoretical rush to upgrade several million machines running Windows XP will be. The first is that Microsoft has extended the deadline for which it will provide security patches into 2015. The second is that many organizations have already paid for Windows 7 and Windows 8 licenses as part of their enterprise license agreement (ELA) for Windows. And the third is that a fair number of them may find it simply easier to pay for Windows XP support after the April 8 deadline expires or simply go without.

The most opportunity lies in identifying customers that opted to buy Windows as part of an OEM machine purchase, said Scott Dowling, Microsoft architect at solution provider En Pointe Technologies.

Many of those organizations tend to be smaller in size. For example, Patricia Simes, deputy CIO for Broward County, Fla., said her organization is still upgrading Windows XP systems in advance of the deadline.

A recent survey of 1,070 IT professionals conducted by Evolve IP, a provider of cloud computing services, finds that that vast majority of organizations looking to upgrade their Windows XP systems plan to move to Windows 7 rather than Windows 8. En Pointe’s Dowling said that the primary reason for this is that the Windows 7 user experience is less disruptive for Windows XP applications that were not built with the touch-screen interface on Windows 8 in mind.

What many customers don’t fully appreciate, added Dowling, is that customers can only gain access to features such as BitLocker drive encryption and Windows to Go capabilities that allow systems to be booted off a USB drive when they have an ELA with Microsoft.

The primary issue, of course, is that there are tons of customers that not only don’t have an ELA in place; they are also probably managing the upgrade process one OEM machine at a time. The Windows XP upgrade opportunity shouldn’t be focused on the machine. Instead, the conversation needs to be about everything, from the way desktops are managed to, when appropriate, leveraging desktop virtualization to move everything into the cloud.

Right about now, thousands of customers are experiencing varying degrees of Windows XP panic. The one thing they all have in common is a vague sense that, when it comes to managing desktop PCs, there must be a better way.

Michael Vizard has been covering IT issues in the enterprise for 25 years as an editor and columnist for publications such as InfoWorld, eWEEK, Baseline, CRN, ComputerWorld and Digital Review.