Should Microsoft allow almost half a billion PCs to become potential prey for hackers?

So is Microsoft right to pull the plug on Windows XP support? I think it is. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and I think April is as good a time as any.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

While Microsoft would like all eyes on the upcoming Windows 8.1 Update 1 release, but what many of us are focused on is the fact that Windows XP will soon hit the end of support date.

See also: Windows 8.1 Update 1: Meh, it'll have to do I suppose 

Windows XP is a ticking timebomb for Microsoft. This that the operating system – which was first released at the turn of the millennium – is dead and gone?  Think again. Estimates suggest that there are some 488 million PCs in the wild running the aging operating system. That's a shade under half a billion PCs in all.

That's a huge number, and it accounts for some 30 percent of all PCs according to metrics site NetApplications.

Can Microsoft allow almost half a billion internet-connected PCs to fall into the hands of hackers as newly-discovered vulnerabilities are no longer patched after the April 8th deadline?

Many of these PCs – estimates put the figure at around 70 percent – are in China, where the operating system was enthusiastically pirated. Last week a report suggested that Microsoft had struck a deal with the Chinese government to extend support for Windows XP, but this was later denied by Microsoft and the mistake put down to a translation error.

To be honest, it really wouldn't make much sense for Microsoft to extend support for China alone given that Microsoft's own data shows that some 70 percent of Chinese Windows XP users had never installed any updates.

Truth is, no one supports software longer than Microsoft does, and it is now time for Windows XP to be retired. While I think that Microsoft is talking a "too little, too late" attitude to warning people that the Windows XP "end of support" date is fast approaching. Then there was Microsoft's stumble with Windows Vista that prolonged the life of the platform and saw it being installed on PCs – especially netbooks – for far too long.

So is Microsoft right to pull the plug on Windows XP support? I think it is. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and I think April is as good a time as any. Also, given the high proportion of Window XP PCs in China, and how poorly patched most of these are anyway, extending the cut off date for support does little to protect the ecosystem. I'm going to hazard a guess that there are a lot of Windows XP-powered PCs out there that are festering hellstews of malware.

But what should you do if you are running Windows XP? My advice is to get off it as soon as you can. If nothing else, realize you're on borrowed time, and that over the coming months software companies will be dropping support for the product.

If you have to run Windows XP beyond the end of support deadline, security firm F-Secure has published some helpful information to help users do that safely. At the very least you should:

  • Install all updates up to and including the final update.
  • Move off Internet Explorer as your default browser. Install Google Chrome or Firefox.
  • If you are running Microsoft Office, fully patch that and tighten up security. Be wary of documents from unknown sources.
  • Remove any software not in use, including both third-party software and stuff bundled with Windows XP.
  • Uninstall Java unless you absolutely need it.
  • Install an up-to-date security product that includes antivirus and firewall.
  • If possible, disconnect the system from the internet. If not, firewall it.
  • Don't get complacent about security.
  • Come up with a plan to transition from Windows XP to a newer operating system. Microsoft has some resources to help.

And remember, time is running out.

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