It’s official: the most successful Windows operating system (and arguably Microsoft’s best product ever) will no longer be supported as of April 8, 2014. If you’re a small business, odds are you still have quite a few Windows XP workstations in your arsenal. And why not? They work, users are comfortable with them, they run all the programs you need, and they talk to all the hardware you have. So, who cares if Microsoft is ending support? Trust me: you do, and I’ll explain why.
But first, a little history. Windows XP (short for eXPerience) was first released in August of 2001 and was eagerly anticipated as it replaced two very unpopular predecessors: namely Windows ME and Windows 2000. Though based largely on Windows 2000, XP offered a familiar, colorful, and intuitive user interface with a robust and reliable backbone, which was rapidly accepted by users, businesses, and hardware/software manufacturers alike to become the standard platform around which the post-Y2K PC world would revolve. This wide-spread approval became a self-fulfilling prophecy: as more and more users adopted XP, manufacturers and developers were inclined to make their stuff work with XP. Then in 2005 (via possibly the greatest marketing blunder since New Coke), Microsoft attempted to succeed XP with the notorious Windows Vista. Incomplete and horribly disappointing, Vista quickly became new technology to avoid. This schism led manufacturers to offer the aging Windows XP preinstalled on new systems instead of the newfangled Vista (aka “downgrade”), which was monumentally unprecedented: imagine a car salesman telling you, “We’ve had so many complaints about our new navigation system, so we’ll replace it with a Thomas Guide for free.” Faced with the overwhelming rejection of Vista and continued proliferation of XP, Microsoft extended support for Windows XP far beyond their at-the-time standard of an 8-year cycle (security fixes for 8 years and no new features after the first 4 years) to an astounding 12 years (if you’re not impressed, try going to Ikea to get a replacement door handle for the Galant cabinet you bought 12 years ago). As an added consequence, Microsoft expanded their future support policy for business applications (such as Windows and Office) from 8 years to 10 years.
Alas, the XP show must eventually close and the set stricken. So what does “end of support” really mean and how does it affect your business?
No more security fixes
Microsoft will no longer patch security holes in Windows XP after April 8th, 2014. So, when a new vulnerability is discovered (presumably April 9th, 2014), Microsoft will not fix it. Given the rapid exploit of known Microsoft OS security weaknesses, it is extremely likely that data thieves and malware authors will take full advantage of newly found chinks in the armor. This will leave Windows XP machines with internet connectivity to be highly susceptible to infection.
New software and hardware may not work on XP
With an upcoming industry-wide abandonment of XP, hardware manufacturers will be less and less likely to write drivers for Windows XP. Thus, when your scanner or printer craps out, its replacement may not talk to XP. Likewise, software companies will progressively stop supporting their applications on Windows XP. Case in point: the current version of QuickBooks for Windows (QuickBooks Pro 2014) and Apple’s iCloud for Windows will not install on a Windows XP computer.
Okay, so using a Windows XP computer after April 8th, 2014 is clearly a huge liability – what is a small business owner to do? Let’s look at some common scenarios:
“We can’t afford to replace our XP computers by April 8th, 2014”
Tread lightly my friend – you’re about to walk through a shooting range with a bull’s-eye on your back. Here are a few suggestions:
- Relegate your XP machines to non-internet tasks as much as possible
- Make sure you’ve got better-than-average security software (antivirus and firewall) installed on your XP computers and keep it updated
- Consider purchasing a security appliance to protect your network if you don’t already have one
- Plan on replacing rather than repairing your XP machines as they progressively bite the digital dust
“One or more of our key line-of-business applications will not work on Windows 7 or later”
Essentially, you have three options:
- Upgrade your line of business application(s) to newer version(s) or replace with competitive products that are Windows 7+ compatible
- Keep some Windows XP computers around to run the old application but disconnect them from the internet
- Virtualize your Windows XP applications (e.g. using Windows XP Mode in Windows 7) to minimize their exposure and simplify recovery if disaster strikes
“My XP computers are less than four years old – do I really need to replace them?”
So you managed to get a computer with XP pre-installed just before the cut-off on October 22nd, 2010? You may be in luck – odds are your system shipped with a Windows 7 license you never used. Hopefully you still have the disc and the Windows 7 Product Key sticker is still readable – if so, get yourself a brand new hard disk and perform a clean installation of Windows 7. Alternatively, you can pick up a copy of Windows 8 Upgrade for around $100 and install it in-place: your documents should be there after the upgrade, but you’ll need to re-install all your applications.
“We don’t want to learn a new operating system”
To quote the great prophet Dilbert: “Technology – no place for wimps.” Did you really think you’d be using Windows XP forever? Do you still get regular ice deliveries to keep your refrigerator cold? Is your phone system a collection of tin cans and strings? Computers and the software they use will march on with or without you (and your users). Please take a look at my article “The Great Windows 7 Dilemma” (http://www.computerscape.com/Articles/TheGreatWindows7Dilemma.htm) – it will likely assuage your fears.
“Where can I get more information?”
Microsoft has published a very simple and informative website which covers the basic content of this article, albeit in Microsoft-friendly parlance at: http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/endofsupport.aspx
XP’s time has finally come. It had a great run – far better than anyone could have expected or imagined. Nevertheless, the world has changed and Windows XP will soon be but a memory. Don’t let your network security and compatibility become a memory with it; plan your upgrade now, lest you and your IT infrastructure go the way of the Zip drive.