Windows end of support this, Windows end of support that… a lot of people in the IT field are writing about how Windows XP will be unsupported tomorrow. Why is this a big deal? Like any other software, operating systems evolve and it takes too much effort for the companies who created them to keep supporting older versions as time goes on.
All Windows versions eventually become obsolete – try to call Microsoft today about that Windows 95 problem you still have and see what kind of response you’ll get. Windows XP, however, is a completely different case. Usually, when support for a Windows version ends that particular version is no longer used in great numbers.
That’s not the case here. Depending which source you use, Windows XP is still in use in at least 18%, to as much as 28%, of all PCs worldwide. Yes, hard as it is to imagine, somewhere around a fifth or fourth of all PC use an operating system that was released in 2001.
When Microsoft leaves these users out in the cold after April 8, any security problem they have in the future will be left unpatched; those millions of PCs will not have any available Microsoft-supplied fixes. Of course, you can still use antivirus software and be protected that way, but newly-discovered security holes in the operating system will not be fixed and therefore will be left wide open for attackers to use.
Why are so many people still using a 13-year-old operating system, I hear you ask? Many of these users fall into three groups. What do each of these groups need to know now that patches are no longer coming?
Group 1 – Simple users that consider the OS a mere tool.
Many of the remaining users of XP have a very practical view of their machines. Their philosophy is, “if I have a screwdriver that works, why bother buying a new one 10 years down the line if the old one still works”. Their XP machine does what they need and they’re happy enough with it.
The problem with this line of thinking is that modern operating systems do get old with time. The screwdriver analogy is flawed in; it’s something extremely simple that never needs an upgrade. Try something more complex for an analogy; how about prescription glasses?
They become obsolete after a while – either when they get out of fashion, or your eyes change (normally for the worse, unfortunately). Imagine you’re left with old prescription glasses that only one optician can change and this optician goes out of business. You’re on your own. Same with Windows XP.
If you’re in this situation, maybe it’s time to consider a simpler computing device. If all you do on your PC is check your email and go on social media, maybe it’s time to consider using a tablet instead of a PC.
Group 2 – Users with a genuine need for Windows XP
The ancient OS has become the only tool that this particular group of people can use. Think ATMs, POS systems, medical devices, certain machines that are not easily upgradable, or whose hardware is too old for a newer operating system.
In some cases, virtualizing the OS might do the trick. Combined with a product that blocks attacks against the virtualized environment, this setup might be able to keep attacks at bay. Isolating them from the Internet is also a possibility, though not always realistic. Users on these systems will need to be especially cautious with everything that goes in and out of these devices, whether online (the Internet) or offline (removable media, etc.)
Regular, even daily backups can help here. Pray a lot, as in this situation your margin for error is frighteningly small.
Group 3 – Enterprise users
The last group of Windows XP users are enterprises that haven’t gotten around to upgrading their large installations of Windows XP.
We feel your pain. Upgrading hardware is never easy, training the users might take time, budget is tight, those kinds of excuses. Well, just remember this: if you have to recover after a massive attack, excuses won’t mean much. We’ve known for years that Windows XP’s support would be ending now; there’s very little excuse for not being prepared for it.
You have to think that while you’re using Windows XP out of support, any zero-day attacks (and there is a very good chance there will be some) will not be solvable. Yes, you can temporarily manage the risks, but that’s not a permanent solution. It is like having a big crack in your wall that you can patch over with wallpaper for a while, but nobody will ever be able to repair. Enough said.