It's Lights-Out Time for Microsoft Windows XP, So Now What?

By Carol Kopp  APR 07, 2014 9:31 AM

Despite dire warnings, millions still use the antique operating system.

 


On Tuesday, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) will send out its latest monthly batch of automated fixes to new problems that have been identified in its software. It's a routine so well established that it is known as "Patch Tuesday," but this time will be different. It's the last time that a fix will be sent for Windows XP.
 
Despite increasingly urgent warnings since 2008 that the company would stop supporting Windows XP on April 8, 2014, millions of the world's personal computers still run on the venerable operating system.
 
With the deadline, Microsoft will not attempt to fix new viruses or security vulnerabilities that might affect computers running XP. The company has virtually admitted that XP, designed in 2001, is such a dinosaur by the standards of modern Internet security that it ought to be extinct.
 
The suspicion -- and it comes pretty close to a firm conviction -- is that hackers are just waiting for XP support to expire in order to take advantage of new opportunities for mischief. From a hacker's viewpoint, the next monthly Patch Tuesday update may serve as a road map to newly found vulnerabilities that are also present in the XP software.
 
As of a week ago, XP remained the world's second most-used operating system, according to StatCounter, and the Web analytics company said its users are "sleep walking" into a potential virus and security minefield.
 
Its figures show that 18.6% of the world's computers are running XP. Its successor, Windows 7, runs 54.7% of the world's computers. Microsoft's newest operating system, Windows 8, is used by a little more than 11% of computer owners.  
 
In the US, StatCounter estimates XP at 15%, in third place after Windows 7 and Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Mac operating system.
 
You might think that Microsoft gave its customers plenty of time to get with the program. But both government agencies and corporate customers have been struggling with a lack of ready money for new computers. Remember, the XP countdown began around the same time as the Great Recession, in 2008.  

 
Possibly keeping one eye on a public-relations disaster waiting to happen, Microsoft has announced a partial reprieve that will mainly help operators of automatic teller machines. An estimated 95% of cash machines reportedly run on a variation of Windows XP. The company will continue to upgrade malware protection for that version of the operating system until July 14, 2015. 
 
However, Microsoft warns that it isn't a total solution for anybody. "Running a well-protected solution starts with using modern software and hardware designed to help protect against today's threat landscape," the company blog post notes.
 
Meanwhile, the hit list is rolling on:
  As for the US government, the State Department and Homeland Security are now entirely or nearly XP-free, with the exception of a few computers that are not connected to the Internet and do not permit use of flash drives, according to a recent report in the Washington Post. Most security intrusions rely on one or the other.
 
However, given the federal budget constraints that have been in place since 2008, hundreds of thousands of old XP-equipped computers are still chugging away in other agencies, adding up to about 10% of the total.
 
Microsoft said it is working with the US government on a transition to newer PCs that is expected to take several more months.
 
In an email to InformationWeek.com, a Microsoft spokesman said the company is seeing "significant momentum" in federal agencies moving to Windows 7 or Windows 8.1.
 
The biggest problem is faced by those with custom-built software for complex specialized applications that have to be rebuilt from scratch for a new operating system. That is a substantial cost, and a lengthy break-in period, for systems that run hospital records systems, public utility control systems, and more.
 
In a last-ditch incentive program, Microsoft is offering $100 in instant savings and free telephone support for 90 days to customers upgrading from Windows XP to any of several brands that come loaded with brand-new modern operating systems. 

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Author owns position in MSFT.

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