Governments and Businesses Are Paying Millions to Cling on to Windows XP

They weren't prepared for tomorrow's XPocalypse, when Microsoft will stop supporting the well-loved ageing operating system.

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Apr 7 2014, 11:00am
Image: Flickr/SFSD Technology Help Desk

If you’re a Windows XP user holding out to the bitter end of the operating system’s life, it’s time to batten down the hatches. Tomorrow, April 8, is the end of support date for XP—a kind of D-Day for zero-day attacks against the system.

If you haven’t been following the OS’s drawn-out end, what that means is that, from tomorrow, Windows XP (and Office 2003 and Exchange 2003) won’t receive security updates or technical support from Microsoft. Any new vulnerabilities discovered in the system won’t get patches after the last security release is sent out tomorrow. 

It’s all pretty dramatic, earning the nickname of the "XPocalypse" in the tech blogosphere. “It means you should take action,” Microsoft says, and warns, “PCs running Windows XP after April 8, 2014, should not be considered to be protected.” It even has a countdown clock tracking the seconds until the plug is pulled.

Of course, Microsoft has a reason to play up the problem—it wants people to migrate to newer products. And the situation isn’t quite as doomsday-ish as some stories doing the rounds might suggest. ATMs aren't going to suddenly collapse because they're running XP, for instance: While many of them do, banks thankfully have rather more stringent security measures than the kind of pop-up updates you get on your home PC.

But they, along with everyone else, will have to make the switch eventually—and sooner rather than later. That said, many high-profile users of XP have until now reacted to the looming end-date with little apparent urgency, which has resulted in some rather last-ditch efforts to safeguard critical systems.

As we reported earlier, thousands of computers in the UK’s public sector are still running XP, including those in the tax office and National Health System. Last week, the British government finally acted upon the looming end-of-support date and did the only thing it could to protect its XP systems at such short notice: pay Microsoft for extended support.

Computer Weekly reported that the Crown Commercial Service struck a deal with the tech giant valued at £5.5 million ($9 million) to continue receiving security updates across the public sector for one more year.

And they’re not the only ones; Dutch News wrote that the Dutch government has also negotiated a multimillion euro agreement with Microsoft, while Bloomberg reported that JP Morgan have also bought a one-year extension

This can only be a stop-gap, however; they’ll find themselves in exactly the same situation next year, when the end-of-support deadline comes up again. That means they’re going to have to move quickly to migrate to other systems. 

While many users are peeved that Microsoft is ending support of the OS, it’s not like they haven’t had any warning, and it’s not at all an unusual situation; subsequent Windows systems have end-of-life dates scheduled already. XP was initially released in 2001, and while it’s still incredibly popular—NetMarketShare estimates that 28 percent of desktops still use it—it will eventually cost Microsoft more than it’s worth to keep darning security holes.

While well-loved, it’s old, and incapable of doing a lot of the things we want computers to do these days; in the fast-paced world of software upgrades it looks distinctly retro already. But for many systems that have always run on XP, it’s survived subsequent OS updates because it still does whatever it’s needed to in those situations—indeed, some applications built around XP won’t run on newer Windows versions, which makes migration a little trickier than a simple software upgrade. 

Then there’s the problem that some older machines, bought around the time of XP, won’t run more recent operating systems, which means a hardware update might also be needed—an added expense. 

Many users have likely been going along with the mantra, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” But from tomorrow, it will be broke. And unless you’ve got a pricey extension, it won’t be fixed. A switchover is ultimately inevitable; it’s time to cut the cord. So long, XP. You had a good run.