If Microsoft Dropped Support of Windows XP, Why Did it Just Get a Security Patch?

Microsoft  (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) made a big deal of its plan to drop support for Windows XP after 12 years on April 8. The end of support meant that users who insisted upon keeping the outdated software (roughly 30% of Windows users) would receive no more security updates or technical support.

The company seemed really intent that it wasn't just threatening to stop supporting the product -- it actually planned to follow through, making it very clear on its website that not upgrading from XP would leave customers' systems vulnerable to all sorts of evildoers hoping to infect them, steal data, and generally wreak havoc.

After April 8, 2014, Microsoft will no longer provide security updates or technical support for Windows XP. Security updates patch vulnerabilities that may be exploited by malware and help keep users and their data safer. PCs running Windows XP after April 8, 2014, should not be considered to be protected, and it is important that you migrate to a current supported operating system – such as Windows 8.1 – so you can receive regular security updates to protect their computer from malicious attacks. 

The language was clear and Microsoft appeared for a few weeks to stick to its guns, but a vulnerability in its own Internet Explorer web browser has caused the company to reverse its decision, at least for one time. The company will be issuing an emergency update to fix the critical bug in Internet Explorer.

"We decided to fix it, fix it fast, and fix it for all our customers," spokeswoman Adrienne Hall, the company's general manager of trustworthy computing, wrote on Microsoft's official blog. 

Microsoft still really wants you to upgrade

Microsoft claims to have issued the security patch because the problem came up so close to when it officially ended support. That's likely part of the story, but it's also probably relevant that the security flaw being exploited was in Explorer, which has caused some companies and government groups to stop using the browser until repairs are made. It's also possible that Microsoft realizes that its efforts to get customers to stop using the unsupported OS and upgrade to Windows are -- to be kind -- not going as well as they might have hoped.

Two companies that track OS usage show that while XP's share of the OS market has fallen, it's not falling very fast.

According to StatCounter, Windows XP accounted for 17.2% of desktop operating system usage in April. That's down from 18.6% in March, and from 22.8% a year ago. Another metrics company, Netmarketshare, measured Windows XP usage at 26.3% of desktop operating systems down from 27.7% in March, and 38.3% in April 2013.

The drops are small enough that a decent percentage of those leaving XP are likely just people upgrading because their computer dies, not because they heeded Microsoft's warnings. Still while the company begrudgingly issued a security update after it said it would stop doing so, Hall insists it won't happen again and that the company is serious when it says it plans to stop supporting the OS.

"Just because this update is out now doesn't mean you should stop thinking about getting off Windows XP and moving to a newer version of Windows and the latest version of Internet Explorer," she wrote.  

Microsoft has a real problem

The decision to stop supporting Windows XP was a bold one for Microsoft as the company risks having users decide to not upgrade to Windows 8 but to switch to an Apple  (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) device or one running Google's  (NASDAQ: GOOG  ) Android. If a customer switches he may leave Microsoft entirely, which could cost the company money in a variety of departments including  a loss of ad sales on MSN.com and Bing and the customer deciding to not use Microsoft Office. The loss of a customer from its ecosystem also hurts because if someone switches to Apple or Android they are more likely to choose compatible phones and tablets in those ecosystems as well.

The problem facing Microsoft -- and the reason it may ultimately have to quietly keep offering XP patches -- is that even heavy pressure has not caused a mass exodus away from XP.  If somewhere between 17% and 30% of Microsoft's users are still sticking with XP it's one thing to say you're leaving them vulnerable to hackers and another thing entirely to actually do it. It certainly won't make someone more eager to upgrade to Windows 8 if the reason they finally decide to buy a new computer is because their bank account was hacked because Microsoft stopped issuing security patches. 

Microsoft was smart to make this exception while using the announcement as another chance to push people to upgrade. It probably needs to keep making exceptions -- at least when high-profile threats are detected -- and hope that the pace of people dropping XP picks up.

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