Pat Pilcher: Windows XP support ending, should we be worried?

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After 11 years, Microsoft is finally calling it a day, dropping support for Windows XP to focus on newer operating systems.

After April 8, Microsoft will no longer provide tech support for Windows XP, including the updates and patches that protect PCs running XP from vulnerabilities. Microsoft will also stop providing Microsoft Security Essentials for Windows XP.

Although you'll still be able to use Windows XP (and your PC won't burst into flames), it will be increasingly exposed to security risks. As hardware manufacturers also move to focus on more recent versions of Windows, it is probable that a growing number of peripherals won't support XP either.

Microsoft's move to end support for XP isn't anything new, I was present at the Microsoft World event in Toronto in 2012 when the then CEO, Steve Balmer signaled Microsoft were ending supporting for XP.

Microsoft's strategy of 18 months advance warning appears to have worked according to analysts, StatCounter who say that Windows XP's marketshare has fallen to just under 29 percent - an 8 percent dip since the beginning of 2013. Should this rate of decline continue, Windows XP ownership is likely to slip below the 20 percent mark by the April deadline.

The StatCounter numbers also highlight an interesting trend. While Windows 7 and 8 accounted for a 54.8 percent and 10.5 percent share respectively, Chrome OS has doubled its admittedly tiny share in just one month rising from 0.05 percent to 0.1 percent.

While that isn't huge, its the rate of growth that counts, and should it continue along its current trajectory, Chrome OS could soon account for a tidy (and growing) 1-2 percent of market share, making Google a player in the desktop/notebook OS space.

Either way, after April 8, running XP will become an increasingly risky proposition with Microsoft's security intelligence report warning that after the April 8 retirement date, the odds of malware infecting XP powered PCs could jump by two-thirds.

A large part of the risk will revolve around the fact that no patches and security fixes will be being produced by Microsoft which means that any zero-day exploit (that is attacks exploiting previously unknown vulnerabilities on the "day zero" of awareness of the vulnerability) could potentially create havoc for businesses and homes running Windows XP.

As hype builds, expect security firms, OS vendors, consultants and others to climb aboard the Windows XP gravy train to cash in on XP's retirement. Because of this, levels of confusion around XPs retirement look set to grow.

The rationale for such players to make a fast buck is pretty compelling. According to the Information Systems Security Association, a massive 38 percent of the worlds PCs are still using Windows XP.

So what options are there when it comes to moving away from XP? Assuming that Microsoft's security concerns are real, staying with XP isn't going to be an option for Internet connected PCs. For users seeking to migrate away from XP, the options are potentially bewildering.

Usability is likely to figure most prominently in adoption decisions. Windows 8's new user interface is likely to provide many long term Windows users with a steep and potentially frustrating learning curve. Similarly, compatibility is also likely to figure highly in the minds of migrators. Most Windows XP applications should work fine in Windows 7, but this may not be the case with Windows 8.

Alternative operating systems such as Apple's OSX or Linux could also appeal.
Apple pretty much defined modern computing and their hardware is nothing short of gorgeous. This said, the sticker price of Apple hardware is likely to limit uptake for price sensitive users.

Linux's open source price tag may be attractive, and there are other benefits besides cost. For a start, Linux is less of a resource hog than other platforms, and it works well on older hardware, especially compared to Windows.

Linux is also highly customizable, and users can choose from a multitude of desktop environments, such as KDE and GNOME. Going down the Linux route is however likely to involve a steep learning curve for non-techie users, who'll also have to sort out apps and drivers for legacy peripherals (or replace them with Linux-compatible equivalents).

Then there's support. It may be a non-issue if you manage to find replacement apps and drivers for peripherals. This said, almost that everything you're ever likely to need to know about whatever flavour of Linux you decide on can be found online, but once again isn't a terribly user friendly experience for Linux novices.

Another alternative is Chrome OS. Developed by Google, Chrome OS is web-centric operating system, which means that the browser becomes the operating system. Because of this there's far fewer security issues than with Windows as Chrome OS doesn't run locally installed software so there's little to exploit.

For those who already have a Gmail account and a passing familiarity with the various Google services, Chrome OS is probably a good choice. The flip-side of this however is that if you're unfamiliar with Google's services, or will be using your PC with no Internet connection. Chrome OS may not be the best choice.

For those already in a windows world, Windows 7 may appear to an attractive option but there are likely to be gotchas. On the plus side, Windows 7 looks and behaves a lot like Windows XP. Going with Windows 7 will also reduce compatibility issues when it comes to existing apps and peripherals.

The biggest challenge with Windows 7 however is most likely going to involve finding a copy of Windows 7. You see the trouble is Windows 7 days are also numbered. Microsoft have already killed off Windows 7 sales to retailers, with the Redmond software giant saying that Windows 7's "retail end of sales" date was October 30 2013. (A year after, PCs with Windows 7 preinstalled will also become unavailable). This is standard practice for Microsoft who typically stop selling an older operating system a year after the launch of a newer version. For users of older netbooks running Windows XP, another issue will be the need to buy and install additional RAM to ensure windows 7 runs smoothly.

Regardless of which OS XP users migrate to, there's little debate that the stakes are sky-high for Microsoft. Providing as seamless a migration path for Windows XP users to other windows operating systems as possible will be critical if Microsoft is to avoid conceding market-share to competitors. While Windows XP is declining and Windows 8 uptake is growing, Linux OSX and Chrome OS are all hungry and up for the job. The good news for us is that there's plenty of choice.

- NZ Herald

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