Warning for Windows XP users: The end is near.
No, that doesn’t mean computers using the 12-year-old operating system will suddenly crash and spread calamity throughout the Internet.
But considering Windows XP is still running nearly 30 percent of all desktops, computer security experts worry that millions of Internet-connected computers will be vulnerable to hackers because Microsoft Corp. will stop issuing updates after April 8.
“I’ve been in security responses for 15 years, and we’ve never faced anything like this,” said Christopher Budd, who as a member of the Microsoft Security Response Center worked on patching Windows XP vulnerabilities when it was first released in late 2001.
“It is my hope that everything will be OK, and I’m not rattled easily, but I am truly concerned,” said Budd, now a global-threat communications manager for antivirus software maker Trend Micro.
Starting Saturday at 3 p.m. local time around the world, Windows XP home and professional users will see a daily message reading, “Windows XP End of Support is on April 8th, 2014” and a link to Microsoft’s end of XP website.
No more updates
Those computers will still run after April 8, but Microsoft will no longer send software updates to patch any new security flaws or provide customer support. The end-of-support site advises upgrading to a more secure version of Windows.
“Our goal is to get people to move from XP to a modern operating system,” said Tom Murphy, Windows communications director for Microsoft.
XP was a product of late-1990s software development, long before the widespread use of cloud computing, Internet media, mobile devices and other advanced technologies now commonplace.
“XP just wasn’t designed to support those capabilities,” Murphy said. “And many malware attacks hadn’t emerged as a threat at that point. When you combine all of those things, it really is time to move on.”
Microsoft announced the April 2014 “end of life” date back in 2007, but a huge chunk of Windows XP users did not move on.
According to the research firm NetApplications.com, Windows XP accounts for a 29.53 percent share of all desktop systems, including Macintosh and Linux, still in use around the world. That’s second only to Windows 7, which has a 47.31 percent share.
Within just the Windows-using world, XP accounts for a 32.5 percent share, second to Windows 7 at 52.08 percent, but far ahead of Microsoft’s newest versions, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, with 7.02 percent and 4.74 percent shares, respectively.
Murphy acknowledged businesses of all sizes hold on to XP for various reasons: the cost of upgrading to computers that can adequately run a newer OS, the incompatibility of old software programs designed for XP or a dislike for how Windows 7 or 8 works.
There are also individual consumers who are in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” camp who don’t see a need to upgrade.
Indeed, many less tech-savvy computer owners may not even know which operating system they use. When Microsoft launched a website that automatically detects the operating system, AmIrunningXP.com, 250,000 people visited within the first day. Of that number, 10,500 computers were running on Windows XP.
New holes for hackers
The problem, Budd said, is all those Windows XP computers will still connect to the Internet. Without constant security updates, hackers could find new holes to access those computers and use them as part of a bot net to launch larger-scale attacks on even newer computers. Microsoft patched about 100 XP vulnerabilities last year alone.
Small businesses such as doctor’s offices still use Windows XP, “which concerns me because that’s a treasure trove of personal information,” he said.
Budd does agree that Windows XP’s time has passed because it’s like “taking a World War II-era tank and putting it on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan today.” He advised upgrading to a newer system, even if that means switching to Apple’s Mac OS X.
“If you want to go to a Chromebook, that’s fine,” Budd said. “The key thing with Windows XP is it doesn’t matter where you go, just don’t stay there.”
Windows market share (percentage)
— 52.08 – Windows 7
— 32.5 – Windows XP
— 7.02 – Windows 8
— 4.74 – Windows 8.1
— 3.42 – Window Vista
— 0.2 – Windows NT
— 0.04 – Windows 2000
Migration help: Microsoft is offering free Web applications to detect if a computer can run a newer version of Windows, whether exiting programs are compatible and to move data to a new computer. Those are posted at windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/end-support-help.