Microsoft Ends Support for Windows XP; What it Will Mean for Customers

Microsoft finally ended support for its popular operating system. What happens to the hundreds of millions of machines that still use it?

Apr 9, 2014 at 11:54AM

Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows XP won't have a clean death. Instead, the 12-year-old operating system will slowly wither away. This will cause those who stubbornly insist on sticking with it a host of problems before they either freely give it up or their computers become so virus-riddled that they are no longer useful.

Though XP still powers as many as 30% of the computers in use around the world, Microsoft dropped support for it on Tuesday, April 8. The end of support won't cause computers that use the OS to lock up or melt down, but it does mean that Microsoft will no longer offer security patches for the OS. That makes people using XP increasingly vulnerable to viruses and makes it likely that virus creators will target the huge number of computers who will now lack the latest protection.

"What once was considered low-hanging fruit by hackers now has a big neon bull's eye on it," Patrick Thomas, a security consultant at the San Jose, Calif.-based Neohapsis, told The Associated Press.

What will happen?
For operating systems that it actively supports, Microsoft releases regular security updates that "can help protect your PC from harmful viruses, spyware, and other malicious software, which can steal your personal information," the company wrote on its support website.The end of those updates means that Microsoft has effectively washed its hands of the OS and told customers to upgrade or go forward at their own risk.

Your XP computer will still work and people who have XP machines and solely use them offline won't experience any changes. Anyone with an XP machine connected to the Internet is at risk. Even with third-party virus and malware protection software those machines will be vulnerable.

Marcin Kleczynski, CEO of Malwarebytes, explained to the AP that hackers will be able to use future security patches released for Microsoft's newer operating systems as blueprints to reverse-engineer ways to attack computers that still run XP.

"There are plenty of black hats out there that are looking for the first vulnerability and will be looking at Windows 7 and 8 to find those vulnerabilities, he said.

Is upgrading worth it?
IDC released a white paper in May 2012 titled "Mitigating Risk: Why Sticking with Windows XP is a Bad Idea," that laid out why companies should make the switch from XP to newer operating systems. Reasons cited include:

  • For five-year-old PCs running Windows XP, user productivity costs per PC per year nearly doubled from $177 in year two to $324 in year five.
  • IT labor costs per PC per year jumped from $451 in year two to $766 in year five. 

IDC, which is a respected research organization, was commissioned to write the white paper by Microsoft but it's unlikely that the firm would compromise the rest of its business to cook the data for Microsoft. IDC concluded that continuing to run Windows XP after Microsoft dropped support wasted money that would be better spent by upgrading to newer systems. The paper studied business use, not individual use. However, unless you use your XP machine offline as a dedicated word processor or for some other very specific purpose, this conclusion is likely to apply, albeit to a lesser extent.

What should XP users do?
Microsoft wants XP users to buy new machines that use the company's latest Windows 8 operating system and it has offered a variety of incentives to encourage people to buy new machines. It's also possible in some cases to upgrade the OS on computers that run XP but just because that's possible not all experts agree that it's a good idea.

The minimum requirements for running Windows 7 and 8 include a 1GHz or faster processor, 1GB of RAM (2GB for 64-bit), 16GB of hard drive space (20GB for 64-bit), and a DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher. However, just meeting those specs does not guarantee a good experience.

"Although Windows 7 or Windows 8 will technically run on a system like this, it will do so in that way that causes you to frequently threaten your PC and spew profanity-laced insults at Microsoft," Tony Bradley wrote for PCWorld

To properly run an updated OS he suggests you need at least a dual-core CPU and 4GB of RAM. 

For many XP users the correct choice might be buying a new device.

Say goodbye to XP and Microsoft too?
Though many have tried to paint the move to drop support for XP as a cash grab by Microsoft -- an attempt to force customers to buy expensive new PCs -- it's hard to fault the company for dropping an OS that is now four generations old. Microsoft may benefit from the move if customers decide to upgrade, but in many cases the company runs a real risk of losing market share.

While you can buy a touchscreen Windows 8 laptop for under $300, there is no guarantee that jilted XP users won't trade them in for cheaper devices running Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android or cheap laptops running Google's Chrome OS. They may also decide to splurge on an Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) device. Microsoft is taking a real risk of angering a previously loyal (albeit not very dynamic) base of installed users and driving them to competitors.

For people who still use XP, however, the answer is clear. It's time to retire your machine to the attic or basement next to your Super Nintendo, Apple II, and Cabbage Patch Kids collection. It was a nice long run but XP machines no longer owe their users anything and it's time to let go.

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Daniel Kline is long Microsoft. He has a Dell laptop running XP that he is sad to retire. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Google (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (C shares), and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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