Are you ready for the "XP Apocalypse" on Tuesday?
That's when Microsoft plans to stop issuing security updates for the aging but still-popular XP version of its flagship Windows operating system, which by some estimates is still running on nearly one in three personal computers in homes and offices around the world, along with some bank ATMs and other commercial systems.
Security experts say those machines will become significantly more vulnerable to viruses, spyware and other malicious hacks once Microsoft withdraws its support. No one's predicting a Mayan-style cataclysm, but if you're still using XP, here are some things to consider.
Microsoft started selling XP back in 2001 - long before the much-maligned Vista and two subsequent versions known as Windows 7 and Windows 8. The company says it has already overextended the natural life cycle of XP, while newer versions of Windows offer better security and performance, especially when it comes to newer Web services and touch-enabled programs.
But many consumers, businesses and government agencies have seen no reason to replace XP on their computers.
"XP is a solid operating system. People are used to it. They've got other software that's compatible with it. And all their stuff is on it," said Kevin McGuire, who owns a computer repair shop. "I still have computers running XP in my shop."
While McGuire is skeptical of the more dire warnings about XP, other experts say there's cause for concern. Several makers of antivirus programs and other security software say their products will continue to work with XP, but they may not provide full protection.
Security programs can detect and neutralize malware, but they don't fix vulnerabilities in the operating system, said Gerry Egan, senior director of product management at Symantec, which "strongly recommends" that XP users upgrade.
Like most other software companies, Microsoft issues regular security updates or "patches" for Windows, which it distributes through free downloads as new vulnerabilities are found. It plans to stop doing this for XP, while continuing to release updates for newer Windows versions.
That in itself could create a road map for hackers to attack XP, said Egan, because some vulnerabilities may affect more than one version of Windows. When Microsoft issues a patch for a later version, he predicted, hackers will check to see if they can exploit the same, unpatched weakness in XP.
* * *
- If you must keep using XP: Make sure you've got updated anti-malware programs, use Chrome or Firefox to browse the Web, and don't store or transmit sensitive information on your PC. Better still, disconnect from the Internet and only use software that's already installed.
- Consider upgrading to Windows 7 or 8, but be advised: Windows 7 is getting harder to find, and older computers may lack the memory and processing power to support Windows 8.
- Maybe it's time to buy a new computer: Check out the new Windows-based PCs, or maybe a Mac or Chromebook, which use operating systems from Apple and Google. For smaller budgets, consider a tablet.