10 questions about the end of Microsoft XP support answered
By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent
WHAT IS ALL THIS FUSS ABOUT WINDOWS XP?
Like most software developers, Microsoft sends out regular updates to its operating systems and other programs. These patch over any vulnerabilities that have emerged, which could allow hackers and viruses backdoor access to the software, and by extension the computer. On April 8th – that’s this day next week – the company will cease sending out updates and providing support services for Windows XP, the operating system it released in 2001.
SO WHAT? THAT OPERATING SYSTEM IS ANCIENT. NOBODY USES IT TODAY.
Wrong. Although it is now 13 years old, Windows XP remains extremely popular. In fact it continues to be the world’s second most popular operating system and continues to run on more than a third of computers around the world. Here in Ireland the number of users has been steadily falling in recent years as Windows 7 and 8 grow in popularity. But even so, 10% of computers in this country still run XP.
IF IT IS SO POPULAR, WHY THEN IS MICROSOFT STOPPING SUPPORT FOR IT THEN?
Microsoft says all its software products have a lifespan, and XP has been on borrowed time for a while. It says it made it clear in 2002 that it would stop supporting XP in 2012, but subsequently extended that deadline twice due to popular demand. But it says all good things must come to an end, and while XP was a great product, what has come since is leagues better, more secure and simpler to maintain. As a result it is time for it to refocus resources on those systems.
SOUNDS LIKE MICROSOFT IS FORCING PEOPLE TO BUY THEIR NEWER PRODUCTS?
That argument could be made. However, in theory it is possible for people who decide to update from XP to buy operating systems made by other manufacturers like Apple and Linux. Also, Microsoft says that in a 25 year old industry, 13 years is a very long time for one product to be supported, and it is only reasonable for them to look to the future.
BUT THEY’LL NEVER CARRY THROUGH WITH THE THREAT TO CUT OFF SUPPORT?
Microsoft disagrees. It says come Tuesday, XP support will be stopped, except in cases where organisations are paying for a continuation of the service for a specified period. After two previous extensions, there is nothing to suggest they are bluffing this time.
SO WHAT IS AT THREAT?
Well, if you are a personal user and run XP on your home PC or laptop, it will start to become exposed from Tuesday. The concern is that hackers will look at updates being pushed out for Windows 7 and 8 into the future, and reverse engineer them to work out what weaknesses they are patching. They will then go and look at Windows XP to see if they can find similar holes, which haven’t been patched.
DOES THIS EFFECT ALL VERSIONS OF XP?
Not all of them. Windows XP Professional for Embedded Systems, which is a special version used in machines like cash registers and ticket machines, will be supported until the end of 2016.
ARE ANY OTHER SOFTWARE PACKAGES INVOLVED?
Support for Microsoft’s word processing, spreadsheet and presentation package, Office 2003, is also ending on April 8, 2014.
AND WHAT’S ALL THIS TALK ABOUT BANKS, GOVERNMENT AND BIG BUSINESS BEING AT RISK?
Unfortunately for the global banking industry, Windows XP runs the vast majority of the ATMs in the world. Here in Ireland, it is the brains behind 80% of ATMs. However, the main banks say they have put in place plans to mitigate against the issue, either by upgrading or putting their own support services in place. As a result, they say they don’t anticipate any problems. The government says XP still runs computers in the Departments of Health, Justice and Equality, Environment Community and Local Government and Education and Skills. But it is to pay Microsoft over €3m over the next year to keep supporting them. As for businesses, the figures aren’t clear. But while most big companies have probably upgraded long ago, many smaller companies haven’t and will be at risk.
SO WHAT ARE MY OPTIONS?
Well ostensibly, you have four. You can make sure you update your XP system fully between now and Tuesday, limit internet access to your computer and take your chances. But Microsoft, Europol and most IT experts think this isn’t a good idea. Otherwise, you can buy a new operating system and upgrade your computer. But the problem is that a lot of old hardware won’t run new operating systems. You could also bite the bullet and go and buy a completely new machine with a modern operating system installed on it. And finally, if you are a big business with deep pockets and no options, you could pay Microsoft or someone else to continue to support your machines.