The coming XPocalypse and five things Microsoft can do to prevent it

Summary:It is in Microsoft's best interests, as well as those of their customers, to take some steps to prevent the XPocalypse.

Unlike the Mayan nonpocalypse, which was predicted by everyone but the Mayans, we know that April 8, 2014 will be an XPocalypse of epic proportions -- and even Microsoft agrees on the year, month, and day.

In fact, it's Microsoft that set the date. April 8, 2014 is the date that millions of computer users worldwide will become completely unprotected targets of criminals, ne'er-do-wells, evil dictators, and Apple ads. April 8, 2014 is the date that Microsoft stops supporting Windows XP .

First, lets establish a basic given.

Any corporation has a right to do whatever they want with their products. Over the past year, we've seen Microsoft exercising that right in the extreme.

They introduced Windows RT and the Surface RT, then went on to write down $900 million due to unsold RT devices (in my opinion, RT stands for wRong Turn). They introduced Windows 8 without a Start menu, when every Windows user on the planet has been using a Start button for more than a decade and that's how it works. They included Office on the Surface devices, but the license wouldn't allow Office to be used in offices.

They introduced the XBox One and then they alienated every Xbox user on the planet by telling people they couldn't sell used games. They then decided to alienate every serving member of the U.S. armed forces by insisting all XBox Ones would need a persistent Internet connection. They quickly backpedaled on that one. I'm guessing no one wanted the Marines pissed at them for any length of time.

There's more, of course, but it makes me just want to write "WTF" on Steve Ballmer's very slopey forehead. The point is, corporations can do whatever the heck they darn well want to do, and Microsoft has shown its innate understanding of that fact while also showing a complete lack of understanding of its customers needs and desires.

So anyway, here we are. Our own Ed Bott says there are roughly 1.5 billion PCs out there, and 33.66 percent of them run XP . That means that there are just about 500 million machines out there currently running XP. Still.

Think about it. 500 million exceeds the entire population of the U.S. (babies, kids, adults -- everyone) by a large margin. Clearly, that number will decline organically over time. However, it is unlikely to decline fast enough to protect the hundreds of millions of users who are about to become a truly target-rich environment for attackers.

Who are these users?

They're the people who don't want to learn an new OS. The people who don't want to buy new machines. The people for whom XP is good enough. The people who aren't technically savvy enough to upgrade their operating system. The people who have some legacy application they must run on an old XP environment and don't know how to make that work on a modern OS. The people who are just simply too lazy to upgrade and those that don't think the security problem is a real enough threat to them to justify doing anything.

In other words, we're looking at a population of defenseless, self-identifying sheep in a world where there are hungry wolves 200 milliseconds away.

We don't know exactly how "no support" will take form, but it's likely that Windows Updates won't work anymore. So, not only will no new exploits be fixed, but it's entirely possible that machines that haven't been updated prior to April 8, 2014 won't be able to be updated to the final patch level for XP.

If you don't think that cybercriminals have marked April 8, 2014 on their calendars with a big star, you're crazy. If you don't think they're holding back on launching some of their bigger exploits until after the patching ends, you're naive. For cybercriminals intent on skinning our 500 million sheep, April 8, 2014 is D-Day.

By abandoning XP on April 8, 2014, Microsoft will cease being a good shepherd of its most loyal customers. Microsoft is just leaving them out there, exposed, and unprotected. On April 8, 2014, those millions of remaining XP users will be like lambs being led to the slaughter. To paraphrase Jeremiah 11:19, they do not know that plots have been devised against them.

Next: the risk to Microsoft and the five things...

Topics: Microsoft, Windows


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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