Microsoft has finally tied its good old dog, Windows XP, to a tree … and bashed its head in with a shovel. After 13 years of loyal service, Microsoft has finally cut off support for Windows XP, which means the company won’t be issuing further security updates for it. But plenty of people are going to keep using Windows XP anyway; it’s still operating in machines everywhere, from ATMs and point-of-sale systems to computers at government agency and large corporations.
Fortunately, there are still several ways to stay protected now that XP is vulnerable to new attacks and zero day bugs that won’t be patched by Microsoft.
The largest and laziest companies and governments agencies are putting off the inevitable and paying Microsoft for additional support. For instance, the U.S. Treasury Department is paying Microsoft because it was not able to finish the migration to Windows 7 at the Internal Revenue Service in time, and has reportedly paid millions for new patches. The British and Dutch governments are both paying for XP extended support as well.
These companies and governments have had years to consider how to plan for the death of XP and now they have to pay the piper. Extended support is not offered to smaller businesses and for those whose personal machines are affected, only for large businesses that strike a custom support agreement (CSA).
As an individual or small company, you are not going to be able to get extended support from Microsoft. You probably do not want it anyway. Your best bet? Buy some new computers.
If new hardware is not an immediate option, here are five things you need to know about the end of Windows XP, plus one option to consider.
What End Of Support Means
Microsoft has moved on to Windows 8 as the core of its OS business, so it will no longer provide software updates to XP machines from Windows Update. Technical assistance will no longer be provided by Microsoft, and Microsoft Security Essentials downloads are not available. Anyone who has Microsoft Security Essentials already installed will continue to get anti-malware signature updates for a limited time.
“Microsoft will continue to provide anti-malware signatures and updates to the engine used within our anti-malware products through July 14, 2015,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in an email.
The signatures are a set of characteristics used to identify malware. The engine leverages these signatures to decide if a file is malicious or not. The Malicious Software Removal Tool (MSRT) will also continue to be updated and deployed via Windows Update through July 14, 2015. Windows XP will not be supported on Forefront Client Security, Forefront Endpoint Protection, Microsoft Security Essentials, Windows Intune, or System Center after April 8, 2014, though anti-malware signature updates can still be delivered by these products through July 14, 2015.
Along with security, Windows Update also provided XP users software updates, such as new drivers. That will not happen anymore, so hardware may become less reliable over time.
Watch Out for Heartbleed
The dangerous Heartbleed bug does not effect Windows machines (as far as is known at this point), but it does attack websites that XP machines connect to. No security patches for Windows XP means the Heartbleed vulnerability creates another layer of danger. Websites that have not updated their OpenSSL certificates could be targets of Heartbleed and it is possible that information from an unprotected laptop could be exposed.
3rd Party Security Software That Supports Windows XP
A bit of good news is that Windows XP users are not completely helpless, because Microsoft will allow downloads of existing patches it has already released. Microsoft’s Windows Update will still be the home for existing patches. Anti-virus software is readily available off the shelf and it’s a good idea to grab one of those as well.
Avira and AVG are two capable and free tools that could help. Avast 2014 Free Anti-Virus is another free tool that gets good reviews, as is Kaspersky Internet Security 2014. In many cases the paid software will be more feature-rich than its free brethren. Keep in mind most of these tools themselves will quit supporting Windows XP by this time next year, so these are really only temporary fixes.
What About Embedded Systems?
Windows Embedded devices, like scanners, ATMs and other commercial products, also run a version of Windows XP, but they have a different support cycle than the desktop version. Official Microsoft support for these products continues in many cases, for some up until April 9, 2019, according to Microsoft. Windows XP Professional for Embedded Systems is the same as Windows XP, and support for it is finished just like for most people on XP. Windows XP Embedded Service Pack 3 (SP3) and Windows Embedded for Point of Service SP3 will see extended support until Jan. 12, 2016.
Windows Embedded Standard 2009 will be supported until Jan. 8, 2019, and Windows Embedded POSReady 2009 will live on until April 9, 2019. These were released in 2008 and 2009, and that explains why they are seeing much longer support. Note to Windows Embedded product suppliers: don’t let these end dates sneak up on you like it seems to have for so many Windows XP desktop users. Plan ahead and prosper.
Update To A New Windows Version
If you opt to update old hardware (as opposed to just buying a new computer), the process is a bit more involved because it entails manually updating all of the operating system for every computer in the company. Nor is it free. It’s not free, but Microsoft does offer a tutorial on upgrading Windows XP to Windows 8.1, the most up to date Windows version. Windows 8.1 has hardware requirements (generally, 1 GB of RAM and at least 16 GB of storage as the lowest compatible devices) so some older machines simply won’t be able to run Win 8.1.
Any time you update an operating system, it is a good idea to back up all your data and files. Windows XP offers and emergency backup function, but it is best to just save everything to an external system or the cloud ahead of time. The emergency backup functions is the Windows.old folder and it saves some files for 28 days, so those who didn’t back up or save their data can retrieve it.
Switch To Linux
Anyone ready to ditch Windows altogether who doesn’t want to spend the money on a Mac can also opt for the open source Linux operating system. It’s free, but does require more technical know how with a steeper learning curve. All personal data and files will have to be saved or backed up or they will be erased upon switching. Part of the fun with Linux is there are 58 separate varieties, known as distributions, on the Linux.com website.
That means there are lots of choices of different looks and feels of operating systems. Some popular versions are Debian, Ubuntu and Fedora. Look for distributions with good documentation and be sure to check the hardware requirements for compatibility.
Image of Microsoft chief operating officer Kevin Turner by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite.