After more than 12 years, Windows XP breathes its last gasp on Tuesday, April 8, when Microsoft will issue the final security update for the aging OS.
Nearly every longtime Windows user looks back on Windows XP with a certain fondness, but the party’s over, at least according to Microsoft. “It’s time to move on,” says Tom Murphy, Microsoft’s director of communications for Windows. “XP was designed for a different era.”
Despite Microsoft’s urgings, which began in earnest nearly two-and-a-half years ago, a sizable portion of the world’s PC users are still actively using Windows XP. During March 2014, close to 30 percent of all Internet-connected PCs worldwide were running XP, according to Net Market Share. Only Windows 7 surpassed XP in PC usage.
There's no doubt about it: Many, many people around the world refuse to give up on XP anytime soon. But why? What’s so great about an operating system that was invented before the age of Dropbox and Facebook, an OS that's almost as old as the original Google search engine?
After talking to a number of current XP users, we've reached one major conclusion: For many of them, PCs aren’t snazzy tech gadgets, but home appliances that still work just fine. Beyond that there’s suspicion toward Windows 8, migration hassles and costs, personal preference, and a heavy dose of skepticism about the fundamental insecurity of Windows XP.
Who's afraid of the big, bad malware?
When you ask Microsoft why it's urging users to give up Windows XP for a Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 PC, it all comes down to security. “XP was launched in 2001, which means the design and engineering started in the 90s,” Murphy says. “At that time, the types of threats and risks you found online were really different and a lot less sophisticated than what we see now. Windows 7 and 8.1 start with security in mind, they are created and designed to be inherently more secure. XP predates all that work, because these threats simply didn't exist.”
But many XP users aren’t buying it.
“They built an awful lot of bomb shelters back in the 50's with the same kind of mindset,” says Dallas-based Pix Smith, a puppeteer and magician who uses an XP PC for online research and small-business bookkeeping. Smith acknowledges that an attack against his PC is possible, but he argues that when it comes to malware, the odds are in his favor.
“As with most of those things, the number of people affected versus the total number of users is a really, really, low percentage, if you are relatively prudent,” Smith said. “And I like to think that I'm a relatively prudent user. I don't do a lot of things that would open me up to malware.”
Others offered similar sentiments. Bob Appel, a retiree based in Toronto, says he uses 12 PCs in a personal Dropbox-like network—10 of which are running XP.
“I use a third-party firewall, a free virus checker, and run Housecall periodically,” Appel told PCWorld via email. “My Firefox browser uses Keyscrambler, HTTPS Anywhere, Ghostery, and Disconnect. I also have a VPN account (PIA) when traveling. For suspicious email attachments, I deploy private proprietary bioware (me!) to analyze before opening. All the 'experts' say I am crazy. Thing is, I stopped the security updates in XP years ago after a bad update trashed my system, and yet I have never been infected, although online for hours each day. So, crazy though I be, I am sticking with XP.”
“So tell me about the people who have never used Microsoft Update and are still running a virgin copy of any Windows OS and have never been infected,” writes Mike Merritt, who uses an XP PC to run his online business in rural Ontario. “Tell me about the number of times that your antivirus program honestly finds a virus trying to get in...Get real! Fear mongering.”
Nevertheless, Microsoft isn’t the only company warning about the inherent dangers of XP after April 8. Security firm Avast says XP is already under attack six times more often than Windows 7. F-Secure, meanwhile, argues that an attack against an as yet unknown flaw in Windows XP is inevitable.
While security is top of mind for Microsoft, users have other concerns, such as the pain of moving their data to a new PC, configuring applications, and, in many cases, getting used to new programs.
Merritt cites Outlook Express as one of his major reasons for sticking with XP. The once-popular email client isn’t available with Windows 7 or 8.1, and for Merritt, alternatives such as Thunderbird or webmail clients like Outlook.com are a non-starter.
“I live and work in a remote area and am limited to dial-up Internet connection,” Merritt said. “Webmails have a slower load time than a desktop app like Outlook Express and they would have their own learning curve and modification to my current workflow.”
"The upgrade path for me would require replacing a bunch of things that work just fine as far as I'm concerned,” says Smith, who runs a number of older programs that still do everything he needs, such as WordPerfect Office X3 for document creation and editing.
Works just fine for me
In fact, the mantra that “XP does everything I need” was a common refrain during our discussions with users. Juan Barbosa, a salesman based in Puerto Rico, recently advised his parents to stick with XP. “My parents just use Facebook, YouTube, Hotmail [now Outlook.com], and read online versions of BBC, CNN, and local newspapers. No need to upgrade,” Barbosa told us via email.
Like others we spoke to, Barbosa also isn’t concerned about security. “[My parents’] favorites tab holds the 14 sites that they visit most. They have antivirus and anti-malware software, and I always advise them to be careful online. I know about the security Vista, Win 7, and Win 8.1 afford, but they are happily accustomed to Win XP and I feel as long as they don’t stray from the secure path I laid there is not much to worry about.”
Microsoft’s Murphy disagrees with that argument, however. “Even if you're only doing email or using social networks, that's personal data on your machine that's potentially exposed,” Murphy told us. “If you're surfing the web and doing email, you're also probably buying things online. Given the risk and threats there are online today, I don't think it's very wise to continue using your Windows XP machine.”
The elephants in the room: Money and Windows 8
For some, sticking with XP simply comes down to the cost. Sam Allen, a student based in Lincoln, UK, says he doesn’t want to move to Windows 8.1, and the cost of a Windows 7 PC is just too high. “They do not do student packages for Windows 7 anymore,” Allen told PCWorld via email. “I am also reluctant to use Windows 8 as I have heard many negative reviews of it thus far.”
When asked about his opinion of Windows 8, Allen points to the Start screen and how it affects the traditional desktop. “It feels like they have tried to fix something that did not need to be fixed,” Allen said.
“I don't have Windows 8 on any computer and hope that I never will,” Merritt said. “Much of my efficiency in work and play requires that I be able to switch between apps promptly and cut-paste-copy as needed. I'm used to my Taskbar and the order of things on it.”
Murphy acknowledges that there is a learning curve when moving from an OS like XP to Windows 8.1; however, he said, it’s not as dramatic as, say, switching from a 2001-era cell phone to a modern smartphone. “If you don't have a touch device, then spending a couple of minutes where you learn how to boot to desktop and how to use the Windows key [in Windows 8.1], you end up way more productive [than in XP].”
Microsoft is also taking steps to make Windows 8.1 more appealing to users reluctant to try out the dual-interface OS.
The same day that Windows XP reaches its end of support on April 8, Microsoft will roll out a major update to Windows 8.1 that will make it easier for traditional desktop users to interact with touch-friendly modern UI apps. The company also recently announced that the Start menu will return to Windows sometime in the coming months.
Once the Windows 8.1 Start menu returns, Microsoft may be able to convince some more XP users to switch. But for many, the decision to stick with XP clearly goes deeper than the presence or absence of a Start menu. And that may not change, regardless of Microsoft's efforts.
Still using XP? Be sure to read PCWorld's guide to keeping your Windows XP PC secure in a world without security patches.