Starting Wednesday, Windows XP users will face a new world with no more technical support or OS updates. That world could prove hazardous to the health of their PCs, which why Microsoft is advising diehards to kick the XP habit.
Okay, so let's say you still run Windows XP. Exactly what will happen now that Microsoft is cutting off support? First off, your installation of XP won't mysteriously vanish or suddenly stop working. You'll still be able to use XP just as always with all of the same features and programs you know and love.
What end of support does mean is that after today you will no longer be treated to bug fixes, security patches, and other updates from Microsoft to defend and protect XP. In fact, today's Patch Tuesday marks the last round of updates for XP. If any new security issues or vulnerabilities are discovered in XP, Microsoft will no longer be in the job of patching them.
Further, Microsoft will no longer offer telephone support for XP users, nor will it update any online support material for XP.
Yes, your antivirus software (including Microsoft's own products) will continue to hunt down and eliminate viruses. But the operating system itself will grow increasingly outdated, leaving your PC more defenseless against malware and other threats. And those threats shouldn't be taken lightly.
Now that XP support is ending, the bad guys smell blood. Since the core OS will be more vulnerable without Microsoft's backing, you can be sure that hackers and malware writers will focus on exploits aimed at compromising all of the XP computers out there.
And just how many computers are we talking about? Estimates vary. According to different Web analytics firms, anywhere from 18 percent to 30 percent of all Windows PCs still run XP. That percentage includes individual users who were never weaned off XP as well as businesses that are either in the process of migrating to a new version of Windows or remain stuck on XP for compatibility reasons.
Tom Murphy, director of communications for Windows at Microsoft, acknowledged that there is a variance in the number of estimated XP computers out there. But he said the number is definitely falling, with some help from Microsoft.
"We announced the end of extended support for Windows XP in September 2007, just under seven years ago." Murphy told CNET. "And since that time we've really been working with customers and partners in two areas: one, raising awareness that support is ending and here's what it means; and two, helping them migrate from Windows XP to a modern OS."
Most large and midsized companies throughout the world are aware that Microsoft is ending XP support, according to Murphy. And he believes the majority of Microsoft's business customers have moved or are in the process of moving. But where does that leave the businesses still stuck on XP?
To support the stragglers, Microsoft has taken a proactive approach through a custom support option available to larger businesses. According to Murphy, this is a temporary type of support designed to help Microsoft's enterprise customers mitigate security risks as they complete their migration away from XP.
Do certain customer-facing businesses pose a risk to the public by running Windows XP?
Consider this: a January story from Bloomberg cited a report from a US ATM supplier that XP still runs on more than 95 percent of the ATMs in the world. But Murphy said he didn't think those ATMs pose any particular risk by running XP since they operate on private networks as opposed to the Internet. The banks themselves are also trying to ensure that their equipment is safe.
"Banks and financial institutions care more about security and trust than any other organization," Murphy said. "I think it's safe to say that banks are well aware that XP support is ending and are taking the required steps to keep their customers safe. In the past day or so, we've had JP Morgan, Wells Fargo, and a load of other banks coming out and saying they're doing everything required to keep those machines safe and running."
Other types of businesses, such as hospitals, doctor's offices, and laboratories, face their own migration challenges as they sometimes run equipment tied to a specific operating system. Murphy said that Microsoft has been working with hardware and software vendors as well as customers to help ease the transition. But he acknowledged that migrating to a new OS is a big process, one reason why Microsoft announced the end of XP support seven years ago.
What's the bottom line for you?
OK, so what about the average user still running XP? Murphy believes more consumers have become aware of the end of support as a result of Microsoft's warnings as well as increased media coverage. But he said that a lot of them remain on XP.
No temporary support options are available for individual consumers. But Microsoft does offer tools to help users move away from the outdated software.
First, some Windows XP users may not even be aware that they're still running XP. For those people, Microsoft serves up a Web site called www.amirunningxp.com that automatically checks your OS. If the site finds XP, it will alert you and point you to information that explains the end of support and advises you on what to do next.
Second, XP users who want to jump to Windows 7 or to Windows 8 do face potential compatibility issues. Will a newer version of Windows run on your existing PC? Will it support all of your current software? To answer those questions, Microsoft offers a Windows Upgrade Assistant tool that will analyze your PC's hardware and software to determine if you can handle a more modern OS.
Third, Microsoft has teamed up with Laplink to provide a free tool called PC Mover Express for Windows XP. The goal of the tool is to copy over your files and settings from XP to Windows 7 or 8. The tool should be able to help people migrating from XP on their existing PCs as well as those moving to a brand new PC.
Whether you're a large business or an individual consumer, jumping ship to Windows 7 or 8 from XP isn't a trivial matter. It requires time, work, and often the purchase of a brand new PC. But the end of support will put XP at a greater risk for security threats. So XP users who want to stay safe and secure should prepare to bid farewell to their loyal OS.