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Should you worry about Windows XP?

April 25, 2014

On April 8 this year, Microsoft stopped all support for Windows XP and no further updates or security patches will be delivered. A friend of mine runs a business using point-of-sale software (POS) which is operating on several computers still using XP, and the inevitable experts appeared out of the woodwork to tell him he needed to upgrade or his business would be in danger. But does he and is it?

Windows XP was probably the most successful and liked PC operating system ever. It was stable (if you had all the service packs installed), relatively secure (if you installed all the updates), and it did most of the things you expect a desktop operating system to do and did them quite well. It has been claimed that the grassy mountain picture used for the default XP wallpaper is the most viewed photograph in history. Like all good things, however, it finally came to the end of its life and the replacement, Windows 7 (yes, we will try to forget Vista), has taken its place in popularity. Now that Windows 8 is in its second generation nobody can really criticise Microsoft for saying "enough". (Note that if your company still has a large number of computers using XP and upgrading would be a major project you can pay Microsoft for an extended XP support contract. How much this costs can be described as "A lot".)

So, do you need to upgrade? In the case of the fish tank builder the answer is "Probably not". The computers run a single application and as long as they are not connected to the Internet there is no security problem. (I have no doubt that some "experts" might try to suggest that the phone lines used for credit card validation provide a risk, but they don't.) The software was written for a particular operating system, works properly with it, and upgrading Windows might introduce problems. My advice was to talk to the people who built the POS system to see if an update to their product was coming that required a later version of Windows but other than that to just carry on as usual.

Most if not all bank ATM's use Windows XP, but again these are single-purpose computers which are not connected to the Internet and therefore will not suffer from not receiving security updates. I assume that the people who build these machines are working on all sorts of updates, but if they do their job properly none of us will notice any difference.

You only have a problem if some piece of software that is vital to your business might need a later operating system to run properly, or even install, or if your computers are connected to the Internet. I still have a few clients whom I haven't managed to convince to upgrade from ACT! 6 (which is older than XP!). The problem is not that it won't run in Windows 7 or 8 but that it can't be installed unless the installation is done in a virtual machine, which is effectively a copy of Windows XP running as a program in a later version of Windows. The VM suffers from the same no-further-updates as a computer running XP by itself. As the installation program used for ACT! 6 was used by many other software vendors it is quite possible that in the event of machine failure all the backups in the world will be useless if you can't install the programs needed to process the data because any replacement machine will inevitably have Windows 8 on it.

So should you upgrade?

If you have XP machines which are dedicated to a single use, such as POS, drafting and design, accounting, ... and they can be isolated from the Internet and any internal network that is itself connected to the Internet then there is no immediate urgency, but you should check with your software vendors for their advice. If you use software that is more than five or six years old you need to be sure that it can be installed under later Windows versions or you leave yourself vulnerable to machine failure as well as Internet nasties, and in any case you are probably not getting the advantage of any improvements to the products since you bought them.

Any computer or laptop you buy now will have Windows 8 on it. It makes little sense to hang onto the past, no matter how comfortable it makes you feel. The cost of an upgrade licence is both reasonable and worth it.

And another thing – Microsoft ended all support for Office 2003 on the same date so there will be no more spam or malware filter updates for that version of Outlook, and computers collecting email have to be hooked up to the Internet. If you want to stay with XP and Office 2003 make sure you have good anti-virus protection.

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