I’m going to keep it simple and practical this week. Last time I mentioned in passing that Windows XP support has ended. I thought I would give a run down of what this might mean for you and others. In anti-buzz fashion, I’ll take the position that I’m trying to talk you down from your tree, though I understand that the typical reader of this column is tech-savvy enough to avoid any real hysteria, but for the sake of argument …
Myth #1: Windows XP no longer works!
Which is of course not true. For the most part, any system still using XP will continue to operate as normal. What you might not expect is that this is a problem in and of itself …
Myth #2: Wait, this isn’t a problem, who even uses XP anymore?
Maybe you don’t use XP anymore, but somebody you know does, maybe your ATM, maybe the mechanic who just changed your oil, (did you pay with your credit card?), maybe your doctor, (*ahem* or dentist). Windows XP was a very successful operating system and like or not it is part of the world’s cyber infrastructure. You don’t get to ignore the risks of unsupported XP just because you don’t personally use it any more.
In some ways, it would be better if every copy of Windows XP just up and died, because it would force everyone to change. It would be a PR disaster for Microsoft, and a financial burden for many others; don’t forget that the tech landscape in other parts of the world looks very different than what you might be used to, and XP is the low-cost norm in many countries.
Myth #3: Oh no, Windows XP is a huge security risk!
I don’t want to understate the potential security risks of an old, unsupported OS, but I also don’t want to overstate it. The truth is, nobody knows what the risks are or will be. As I pointed out a long time ago, security can be a matter of popularity. Macs at one points enjoyed greater “security” simply because they were less popular, and thus it made less sense for hackers to target the system. The risks associated with XP will be influenced by what segments of the population hold out on it, and for how long. Right now, there is enough XP-infrastructure that the risks could be very real. From the other side, the article I linked to last week was about a third party trying to take on the mantle of maintaining XP as a safe system. The effectiveness and affordability of such services will have a large impact on how XP’s retirement years play out.
Myth #4: Windows XP is still a great system!
It doesn’t matter. What matters is the availability of software, and it will be increasingly hard to find modern software for the system, which is the biggest practical reason to stop using it if you haven’t already, (security reasons, as I’ve outlined, can be sort of nebulous). A market that can hold out against this are XP-as-machine situations, (like an ATM), where the existing system is basically “done” and has no pressing need for an update. Additionally, many developing markets are saturated by XP and it is likely that these markets will still see new software come off the line.
I think XP’s future might look a little like the Y2K scare, as odd as that sounds. Forget the details of the actual Y2K “bug”, the real problem was that a large portion of our computing infrastructure was laid on top of old system with a common flaw. If XP sticks around long enough, we might see a similar situation develop where some critical flaw is exposed and has a large impact on our day-to-day, and it might take this “scare” to provide the final push to move on from this older system.