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Time is running out for Microsoft XP holdouts

By Paul Gilster
Correspondent

Keeping up with the latest software isn’t always the best idea. When it comes to operating systems, where the basic operations of your computer are in play, there has always been a case for waiting for new features to be shaken out and problems identified before taking the plunge yourself. But the surprising longevity of Windows XP reminds us that waiting too long can be equally problematic, exposing your system to attacks and and creating problems with devices like printers and scanners that you may want to connect to your machine.

Windows XP’s long lifetime is remarkable. Following the lackluster Vista, Windows 7 is now 4 years old and its successor, Windows 8, has already moved into an updated version 8.1. In its day, XP was the best Windows Microsoft had produced, but it’s startling to see that as of the end of 2013, it still accounted for 29 percent of all computer users online. I’m seeing forecasts that at least 25 percent will still be using XP inApril, when Microsoft originally said it would stop sending out anti-malware signature updates for its Security Essentials package.

That date has been extended until July 2015, but the April deadline holds for public security patches, which will no longer be available for XP. By continuing to offer a program that sniffs out malware – its Microsoft Software Removal Tool – even after it stops patching the operating system, Microsoft is acknowledging that at least some tools should remain available to die-hard users. But keeping XP secure is getting harder and harder. The time to get out is now.

Jaded users

I can understand the motivations of at least some XP holdouts. After the heady decades of computer growth in the 1980s and ’90s, when every software upgrade seemed to bring a world of new capabilities, many users have become jaded. They’re getting what they want – email, Web access, word processing, spreadsheets – out of a functional operating system, and upgrading means either a complicated systems check and new installation or else a new and more powerful computer that comes with the latest operating system already installed.

But the reasons for taking the upgrade route are becoming more obvious. Because Microsoft is heading in the direction of ending all support for XP, the operating system will become more vulnerable to hackers than ever. Without updates from Microsoft, XP ceases to be a moving target. Moreover, some hackers are smart enough to reverse-engineer patches for Windows 7 and 8 to uncover what may well be older vulnerabilities present in XP. The last version of XP has already demonstrated an infection rate almost twice that of Windows 7.

Beware of malware

Getting malware into your system is bad enough, but another major factor in the upgrade decision is the devices you’ll be working with that connect to your computer. Newer printers, scanners and monitors, for example, are built so they can take advantage of the latest features of the installed operating system. While they’re often backwards-compatible, the newer technologies are not guaranteed to function smoothly on Windows XP. When they do operate, they may tap only a fraction of their capability under a more sophisticated operating system.

Anyone with a home computer setup that’s producing what he or she wants can be forgiven a natural reluctance to buy yet more technology. But the upgrade path isn’t merely cosmetic, and in an era of ever more dangerous attacks on corporate and personal systems, it’s basic insurance to protect our digital assets with a fully supported operating system. If you’re running XP, Microsoft is offering a little extra time, but you should be evaluating new machines that come with Windows 7 or 8 pre-installed. There are too many dangers out there not to act.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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